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Originally published January 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 21, 2009 at 4:36 PM

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Danny Westneat

Taking it all in: hip politics, claps, hollers, stern message

Politics sure has changed with Obama. It's hip, now. Politics hasn't ever been hip before, has it?

Seattle Times staff columnist

WASHINGTON — "That's right, sir! Say it, brother! Say it loud!"

It is somewhere in the middle of new President Obama's inaugural speech. It's no feel-good barnburner — he starts right out the gate talking about "gathering clouds and raging storms." And gets more somber from there.

Yet a man has elected to stand in the aisle near me, even as everyone else in our section sits primly. He exhorts the fresh president on. Sometimes with claps and affirmations, other times with plain old hollers. But almost always alone because we in the press section are not supposed to stomp and shout, even if we feel like it.

The president's only 30 or 40 feet away. I wonder: Can Obama hear him? Also: Is this sort of behavior frowned on during staid inaugural addresses?

I look up at the man. It is Sean Combs, the rapper and style maven. Aka P. Diddy aka Puff Daddy. He is probably the richest person I've laid eyes on outside of Bill Gates.

Sitting in the rows to his right are Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. To his left is the rapper Jay-Z, sporting a lustrous fur hat. And the singer Beyoncé, wearing diamond "O" earrings worth more than my house.

How I got seated here is beyond me. Maybe they felt sorry for newspapers and threw us a bone?

Politics sure has changed with Obama. It's hip, now. Politics hasn't ever been hip before, has it?

One of the rappers noticed how stiff the assembled dignitaries were. We must be in the good seats because you people don't make any noise, he shouted.

Later, I saw Halle Berry at one of the inaugural balls. Tyra Banks. Magic Johnson. There's a whole new flavor to politics now. At the Western States ball, J-Lo made a surprise appearance, for a spicy duet with her husband, Latin crooner Marc Anthony.

I have to say, though — all the glitterati gave the inauguration an odd feel. This is as close as America gets to royalty, and the party happens only once every four years. But as soon as Obama started speaking, the partying seemed out of place.

The speech said we're in crisis. A winter of hardship. He said if we're not bold, we risk being a nation in perpetual decline. He said it's old values we need to carry us through.

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Of course it was hardly only celebrities and struggling journalists who came to hear Obama speak. Later, as the 2 million or so were leaving the National Mall, I saw some in the audience didn't have to go far. They were homeless, so they just curled back up in their doorways and under blankets.

I'll never forget watching Obama take the oath of office, breaking the ultimate color barrier. And yes, for a time you feel like the coolest of cats when you're there on this unprecedented day alongside hip-hop kings and queens.

But the new president looked out at all of us and had the last word.

Party's over, people.

Danny Westneat: 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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