Maureen Dowd: Barack Obama’s birthday party signals the end of cool

Former president’s tone-deaf bash at Martha’s Vineyard was a tale of the disinvited

Jay Gatsby gave big, lavish, new-money parties at his sprawling mansion on the water because he wanted to seem cool. He wanted Daisy to notice him.

Barack Obama gave a big, lavish, new-money party at his sprawling mansion on the water because he wanted to seem cool. Being cool is important to him.

One difference is that Gatsby opened his house to the uninvited. Obama closed his house to many of the invited after getting flak for hosting "a celebrity mosh pit", as Stephen Colbert called it, while officials were telling people to mask back up.

It’s hard to stop thinking about the over-the-top fete the former president held at his Martha’s Vineyard manse for his 60th birthday. It is such a perfect taxonomy of the Obama arc.


You can't be cool if you diss the people who took risks for you when you were a junior senator

As president, he didn’t try hard enough on things we needed. He was a diffident debutante with a distaste for politics. Post-presidency, he is trying too hard on things we don’t need. The culture is already swimming in Netflix deals, celebrity worship, ostentatious displays of wealth, not to mention podcasts. Did the world really need Renegades, his duet with Bruce Springsteen?

We already knew that Obama gravitated to stars, but it was disillusioning to see it on such a grand scale last weekend. “I think the nouveaux riches Obamas are seriously tone-deaf,” said the authority on opulence, André Leon Talley.

“We all love Beyoncé. But people have so many things to worry about with Covid, voting rights, climate warming. People are afraid of being evicted from their homes. And the Obamas are in Marie-Antoinette, tacky, let-them-eat-cake mode. They need to remember their humble roots.”

Obama was a cool cat as a candidate in 2008, but after he won, he grew increasingly lofty. Now he’s so far above the ground, he doesn’t know what’s cool. You can’t be cool if you diss the people who took risks for you when you were a junior senator – only a few years out from paying off your student loans – taking on the fearsome Clinton machine.

The disinvited

Many of those who helped Obama achieve the moonshot, becoming the first African American president and then becoming uber rich, were disinvited. The party crystallised the caricature of the Democratic Party that Joe Biden had to fight against in order to get elected. It was as far from Flint and Scranton as you can imagine: an orgy of the 1 per cent – private jets, Martha's Vineyard, limousine liberals and Hollywood whoring – complete with a meat-free menu.

The disinvitados, as one referred to them, were in four camps: Some didn't care; some pretended they didn't care; some were annoyed; and some were deeply hurt, especially loyal former staffers who felt they had contributed more to the Obama legacy than the likes of George Clooney, John Legend and Don Cheadle.

There were pop-up Plan B gatherings on the island and gallows humour among the iced. One joked that he would have liked to go mostly to see the old Obama gang from campaigns, except, oops, they weren’t there. Colbert, who was disinvited, joked that he was axed because the president had to limit the guest list to “only his closest Beyoncés”.

Only one person was thrilled to be disinvited, and you can guess who it was. When he got a call from the former president's assistant, Larry David (who has a home on the island) figured he was going to be asked to perform. He went into a tailspin, trying to think of what routine he could come up with in three days.

“I was pretty glum when I finally called back his assistant,” David said in an email. “When he told me I was eighty-sixed from the party, I was so relieved I screamed, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ He must have thought I was insane. Then I hung up the phone, poured myself a drink and finished my crossword puzzle.”

Whether the party was 500 or 300 or 30, Obama should have made sure to have the people there who made the moment possible, the ones who worked so hard to get him elected and cement his legacy.

David Axelrod, Pygmalion to Obama's Galatea, was a disinvitado, which he handled with his usual grace. Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama chief of staff who helped him navigate the first two successful years of his presidency, was also disinvited and quipped in the New York Times story by Annie Karni that getting voted off the island was character-building.

High-heeled shoe

Obama would not have been president if Nancy Pelosi had not subtly put her high-heeled shoe on the scale for him against Hillary Clinton and her chances to be the first woman president. And he would not have gotten healthcare passed without Pelosi. She wasn't there.

It was a bombshell when Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama in 2008 along with her uncle Teddy, a turning point in the primary against Hillary. After being disinvited from the party, Kennedy had the speaker at her home on the island for dinner.

"I would have disinvited me if I was him," she joked. David Geffen, whose endorsement of Obama and break with Hillary was instrumental, didn't even get an invite.

One disinvitado joked that he’s going to throw a surprise 61st birthday party for Obama. “As long as they had anything to do with passing healthcare, rescuing the auto industry and saving the economy from a Great Depression,” he said, “they’re invited.” – New York Times