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10 Balls, 9 Minutes Of Dancing

Over and over, President Bush and the first lady danced to a musical medley that included "I Could Have Danced All Night."

Could have, but didn't.

President Bush shuttled through his 10-ball dance card at warp speed Thursday night and clocked in back at the White House by 10:03 p.m., nearly an hour and a half ahead of schedule. Setting the tone for the evening, one White House aide flashed an index finger at Secret Service agents and proclaimed, "One down" as the presidential entourage left Ball No. 1.

After an inaugural address in which he proclaimed America's mission to spread liberty to the world, Mr. Bush put on his dancing shoes and got a hearty "hoo-ah" from the crowd at his first stop, the Salute to Heroes Ball, but it was Miss USA 2004 Shandi Finnessey who attracted an even lustier cheer at another inaugural gala.

"I'm never going to pass up an opportunity to see so many men in uniform," Finnessey cooed at the Commander in Chief Ball, which paid particular tribute to the military. "And I may take one of you home tonight."

Emcee Tommy Lasorda, the former Los Angeles Dodgers coach, could only moan, "Now if only I were 30 again."

The Commander in Chief Ball was a little different from the other black tie events marking Mr. Bush's second and final oath of office: this one was a "thank you" to the troops - free to all who have served in what the Bush administration collectively calls the War on Terror.

Being invited to share the celebration, said U.S. Marine Sgt. Edwin Julien, is a gesture that is appreciated.

"A lot of times the service members think that we're forgotten," said Julien, "but this is something that reminds us that we're not."

Mimic Rich Little, warming up the crowd for President Bush at another ball, promised: "If he doesn't show up for any reason, I will do him for you." (He didn't have to.)

The Bushes skipped dancing altogether at their first stop, and twirled all of 1 minute, 6 seconds at Stop 2. By Stop 5, they had it down to 52 seconds. Cumulative dancing total for all 10 galas: 8 minutes, 54 seconds.

"It may be the first time in four years," said President Bush, before taking his first turn on the dance floor with the first lady.

The Bush women did their part to promote the best of American design, with Laura Bush in a silver and blue V-neck gown by Oscar de la Renta and Bush daughters Jenna and Barbara wearing the latest fashions by Mark Badgley and James Mischka.

The Bushes weren't the only inaugural revelers hightailing it home early. Other ball guests were pouring out all the doors by 10 p.m.

All told, some 50,000 people gussied up for official balls draped in red-white-and-blue names like Freedom, Liberty, Democracy, Independence, Stars and Stripes.

Some revelers took the patriotic theme to extremes: One Betsy Ross-esque gown featured a glittering blue bodice with white stars and a poufy lower half swathed in wide stripes of red and white. A sparkling flag handbag completed the gaudy display.

Another fashion don't: comedian Ben Stein, emceeing the Democracy Ball in black tux and green sneakers.

At the Veterans Ball, none other than "Apprentice" villain Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth held court in a self-described "beautiful, amazing gown."

"I'm wearing my political hat as opposed to my celebrity hat," explained Manigault-Stallworth, who's now managing partner for a political consulting firm.

Pantoliano's take on the inaugural ball scene: "From what I understand, they're mostly about checking your coat and waiting to get it back."

At the Freedom Ball, President Bush told attendees sipping warm champagne and $5 beers that he is "looking forward to putting my heart and soul into making this country as promising as it can be."

For some, the festivities were disappointing. At the Patriots Ball, one disgruntled reveler complained, "There's no beef. There's no shrimp. This is the worst ball I've ever been to."

Some of the highest-decibel celebrities in Washington turned up at unofficial parties and receptions, some organized by Bush opponents, following up on a day of scattered protests around the city and across the nation.

Actors Joe Pantoliano and Jonathan Lipnicki, the kid who stole scenes from Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," were among those lined up for a sold-out event hosted by the Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group for actors, writers, singers and other members of the entertainment industry.

Another big draw in D.C. was the Alternative Inaugural Ball, with headliners including liberal satirist Al Franken, which raised $65,000 for the Independent Action political action committee on behalf of Democratic candidates.

Franken mocked President Bush's inaugural speech calling for supporting freedom around the world - saying the United States supports allies like Uzbekistan that repress their people.

He also challenged Mr. Bush's claim to the high road on values, particularly concerning the war in Iraq. "What is the morality of going to war on false premises?" said Franken, who is considering running for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota.

"People are saying, 'You know, it's not so bad,'" Franken told the crowd, referring to President Bush's re-election. "It's terrible!"

Former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean hit a similar note at an Un-auguration party held in Burlington, Vermont, by his political organization. "The darkest hour is before the dawn. We've had our darkest hour - January 20, 2001," said Dean, who's in the running to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "It's all uphill from here, baby."

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