Media-world parties are pretty well-oiled machines. Planned and primped to the last detail, they rarely stray from the script of handshaking and business-card trading and sucking up. Except perhaps when they are Election Night parties -- then even the most efficient social engine can jump the track, and the most meticulously well-organized affair can slip into the chaos of unexpected despair.
The party thrown Tuesday night in New York by Miramax co-chairman and Democratic Party supporter Harvey Weinstein and Republican macher Georgette Mosbacher was billed as a bipartisan viewing party. And at its start, it looked like Mosbacher and her right-leaning flock were already experiencing party regret.
Clustered in a small corner of the Palm restaurant, they were not mingling well with the rest of the crowd. People were whispering that they weren't talking to the press; in anticipation of President Bush's imminent defeat, they had already begun to lick their wounds privately.
Indeed, it felt a lot more like a true-blue celebration for the Democrats, who were not filtering into the Palm but pouring in, in sweaty, boozy waves. The room fast became an overstuffed oven, and it seemed that everyone except the Republicans was patting each other on the back.
Still, with the networks having called only a handful of states, few partygoers were ready to go on the record with definitive confidence. "I'm in suspense," said U.S. News and World Report and Daily News Publisher Mort Zuckerman. Zuckerman declined to tell Salon whom he had voted for, but he was already imagining how things would get sorted out if John Kerry were elected with a Republican Congress.
"It looks like it's most likely going to be gridlock in the face of the most serious problems ever to face our nation," Zuckerman said, specifically pointing to "the worst fiscal crisis since the Depression" and the massive security threats posed by terrorists before grabbing "Inside the Actors Studio" host James Lipton and heading into the fray.
A half-hour later, the sidewalk outside the Palm was the most interesting place to be. Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons headed out the door, stopping to show Salon the message on his Blackberry from a friend in England, telling him that a Rupert Murdoch-owned publication was calling the election for Kerry.
"They get the real news over there," said Simmons, who had spent the day in Pennsylvania, speaking to 5,000 people and helping to get out the vote. "Over here they won't say it, but this is what's really happening," he said, indicating the electronic device on which the script was crawling.
"Russell, if this happens, it's going to be because of you," said a friend of Simmons, praising the mogul for his involvement in the GOTV process. "It was so inspiring today in Pennsylvania, seeing all these people who had never cast a vote before in their lives lining up," said Simmons, before heading off into the night with a jovial wave.
Back inside the Palm, the jabbering quieted some. There were a lot more blank stares, many of them drunken. And Mosbacher's team was getting louder and more loquacious; they were beginning to relinquish their corner and spread into the rest of the room. It was hard to tell what had happened: The states on the map were turning red and blue in the predicted pattern, and no one had stolen anything yet, but somehow everyone knew something was very wrong.
Bianca Jagger was there, and Charlie Rose and businessman Teddy Forstman. An impromptu VIP table had formed in a corner of the side room. Weinstein was sitting next to Barbara Walters, at a table with Sony chief Howard Stringer and Lipton.
When we asked Walters whom she had voted for, she looked mildly perturbed and announced, "You'll never get that out of me." She reached to tap a friend on the shoulder to leave, but suddenly seemed to reconsider. She turned to us and asked, "What are you feeling right now?" Mild panic, we confessed. Walters, looking cool, blond and well preserved in her zebra-print scarf, put a warm hand on our arm. "And who are you panicked for?" she asked quietly. Without thinking, we told her. She raised an eyebrow and smiled a little sadly. Then, she snapped out of it. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you that," she said primly.
It hadn't occurred to us that we shouldn't have answered.
We next asked Lipton what he was thinking. "I'm thinking about saying goodnight to Barbara," he said, in reference to Walters, who was taking a rather regal leave of the table and the party. Next, confessed Lipton, he was "thinking of possibly going home." He told us that he was a Kerry supporter, and said that no matter what happened, "the best part of today" was seeing the high numbers of voters take to the polls.
He predicted that Wednesday "there will be the morning-after hangover when there is nothing left but grim news." Lipton, exercising a flair for the dramatic that he has honed well in years spent interviewing Sean Penn and J.Lo about their craft, continued, "I wish the world were more peaceful. God, I wish it were more peaceful." He looked as if he might cry.
The party officially began to drain as the network talking heads edged closer and closer to calling Florida for Bush. Weinstein, roaming the party like a wild dog with a cellphone, felt the shift in mood. "When I walked in here, Georgette said 'Congratulations,'" he told Salon, indicating his co-host. "Now she's the one who's smiling."
He was being gracious, and added, "The only theory I've heard that makes any sense at all is that a lot of women voted this morning and it threw the exit polls," he said, trying to understand a day that had started out looking like it was going to go his way.
Just a few feet away, Mosbacher was a woman reborn. Not the least bit wary of the press by this point, she spoke with the equanimity born of presumptive victory. "At the end of the night whoever wins will be president of everyone in this room. We can agree to disagree. That's why he had this party. That's what makes this country great." But most of the people around her didn't look like they thought the party, or the country, was that great anymore, as the networks finally called Florida for Bush.
Soon Weinstein was outside again, intermittently talking to Zuckerman and pacing the streets while barking into a cellphone. His mood seemed to be in rapid free-fall. "Florida, they called it for Bush," he said to partygoers gathered on the sidewalk smoking. When Salon asked how they could be sure when the Miami precincts weren't counted yet, Weinstein spat back, "Obviously they're sure enough that they called it for Bush."
"How are you?" asked a Weinstein compatriot exiting the restaurant. "Not good," he said darkly, just as Manhattan Club owner Amy Sacco walked out. "Come on, I just heard Howard say he's still hopeful," she told him. "Howard Stringer?" asked Weinstein. "No, Howard the Tennessee governor," said Sacco. "Who the hell is that?" said Weinstein.
It was unclear. But for the record, Tennessee's governor is Phil Bredesen, and we do not believe he was at the Palm.
Pretty soon, in fact, very few people were at the Palm. Sodden, deflated guests hailed cabs while Weinstein continued to wear a groove in the cement of the sidewalk, telling one of his staffers he was trying to get Michael Moore on the phone. Film producer Beverly Camhe got into a taxi, yelling to a friend, "I should go back to Pennsylvania, where I was happy."
Inside, what had been an overheated, self-congratulatory rat fuck just a few hours earlier had become an intimate wake.
Weinsetin forsook the sidewalk and finally settled into a chair with the rest of the mourners. The white-clad Palm wait staff was making more noise than the remaining guests, one of whom was asleep at her table, the rest crowded sullenly around the largest TV screen, watching the news anchors hedge around whether to call Ohio for Bush. At 1:20 a.m., Weinstein stood up to leave. He was smiling as he shook the hands of his remaining guests, a resigned, bipartisan sort of smile. But he looked pained. He had just co-hosted one of the most depressing parties in history.