RICHMOND, Va. — After his best friend, Terry McAuliffe, was sworn in Saturday morning as governor of Virginia — a title and rank few thought he’d ever have — Bill Clinton left the State Capitol without stopping for reporters’ questions.
“It’s Terry’s day today,” one heard the former president say as he walked out onto Bank Street, where he was met with cheers form a gathering crowd.
Later that night, at the inaugural ball in downtown Richmond, the focus was back on McAuliffe. Neither the Clintons, nor Virginia’s two U.S. senators, joined the new governor at the downtown Siegel Center auditorium for the black-tie event. The idea, one inauguration staffer offered, was to let “Terry have his night as governor.”
McAuliffe, the longtime fundraiser, fixer, and confidante to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, took an oath of public office for the first time, as rain and fog hung heavy over the Virginia statehouse. That McAuliffe — known as “Mad Dog” growing up and the “Macker” in political circles — became “his excellency, the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia” on Saturday was enough to put a bemused smile on the faces of even the Clintons, who huddled beneath a large umbrella (held by Hillary) one row behind their longtime friend.
The Clintons, who hosted a private event Friday night for McAuliffe with friends and donors, stayed largely out of focus. McAuliffe did not mention the former first family in his speech — he quoted Thomas Jefferson instead — and neither Hillary nor Bill, who spoke at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration in New York City earlier this month, were featured in the ceremony.
Guests needed no reminder of the Clintons’ presence. The stadium-style seating was packed with former Clinton hands, donors, and friends, all decked in blue and green plastic ponchos. Behind McAuliffe, a Virginia state senator wore a black ski cap bearing the logo of “Ready for Hillary,” the PAC urging the former secretary of state to run for president.
But the focus Saturday was squarely on McAuliffe.
The former chairman of the Democratic Party, known for his unfailing energy and willingness to do just about anything for a check (once, for instance, wrestling an alligator), just barely won the governorship last year, after many doubted he could parlay his background as a party operative into a career in government.
McAuliffe appeared loose and animated on Saturday from his perch on the Capitol steps. When the ceremony ended, McAuliffe leaned over the curtained ledge of the stage for an impromptu press conference, shouting into the outstretched microphones of reporters. Hanging over the wall, he waved and flashed fans a big thumbs-up.
“Did you have fun?” he yelled out to one attendee.
“Are you ready to dance?” he asked another.
As the inaugural parade brought band after band through Capitol Square, McAuliffe hung over the edge of the wall dancing and clapping. Even as guests, soaked from rain, emptied out of the statehouse, a grinning McAuliffe stayed watching the last band go by.
He was still smiling, hours later, at the inaugural ball downtown, where the high-ceiling auditorium was decked with four full-service bars, three photo booths, two bands, and ramped up security. (Reporters wishing to leave the press bleachers, even to visit the restrooms, required an inauguration staff escort.)
Guests, who numbered in the thousands, danced as the Tams, a five-man band famous in the 1960s and ’70s, performed on the stage in front of large signs that showed McAuliffe’s name and campaign logo in lights. Finally, the governor emerged with his wife, Dorothy, for the customary first dance. “You have heard enough speeches,” he said. “It’s time to have fun! It’s time to dance!”
When the Tams started up again, McAuliffe shimmied back and forth, moving his arms and hips in opposite directions. The lead singer shouted, “You’re the governor now,” and pulled McAuliffe into line with the other four singers, all moving in unison to the music. McAuliffe, laughing, tried to imitate them but couldn’t fall into step.
McAuliffe and his wife shared their first dance to Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.” McAuliffe twirled his wife awkwardly and signaled to the audience for approval. He spun her again and again, until finally he lifted her arm in the air and spun himself under it.
By 11 p.m., the crowd in the ballroom had thinned, and McAuliffe was on his way to the next event of the night — the after-party.
As one guest put it at the inauguration, “No one throws a party like Terry.”