The “VIP” Seats At This Year’s Inauguration, Like Everything Else In 2021, Were On Zoom

The day before the inauguration, a large box arrived on the doorstep of Brice and Houston Barnes. Inside was a spread of inaugural merchandise: a Biden–Harris leather weekender bag, Biden–Harris wine glasses, aviator sunglasses, cufflinks, and a large bottle of Rye with the words “We did it” etched into the glass in cursive.

The couple planned to watch the proceedings on Wednesday with their two kids, ages 9 and 11, from their living room in Tallahassee, Florida, where they have spent the last 10 months raising more than $4 million for Joe Biden from the tiny box that appears in the top right corner of a Zoom call. They have hosted Zoom fundraisers with Keisha Lance Bottoms, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Kennedy III, Willie Nelson, George Clooney, and Barack Obama. They’ve attended Zoom concerts, Zoom happy hours, stood in Zoom photo lines — on the count of three, Brice said, “everyone smiles and they take some sort of virtual photo” — and they are familiar with the awkward rhythms that can punctuate any Zoom call, even one with close friends. As top-tier fundraisers for Biden — there is no “leaderboard,” but the couple have been told they are in the top 25 or so — Brice and Houston, both age 39, have found themselves face-to-face with the president in their own private “breakout room,” his face in one box, theirs in another, with a couple of minutes to exchange pleasantries.

“They do a really good job of trying to make it not awkward,” said Brice.

The Barneses, who raised money for the transition and were chairs of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, had been told there would be “some VIP exclusive viewing” for top donors and fundraisers on the day of the inauguration, in lieu of the usual parties and balls that were canceled due to the pandemic, Brice explained on the phone a few days before the oath. She stopped herself to rephrase: “Some preferred viewing opportunities,” she said. “No one quite knows what that means.”

By the time the box of inaugural gifts arrived, the mystery remained. “I was told we should be getting an email about it soon,” she said in a text message. When the day came, it turned out to be another Zoom call, this one hosted by Bradley Whitford, the actor from The West Wing, and other celebrities like Amy Schumer, in the style of a kind of “webinar,” said Houston. On the Zoom, network coverage played on one side of the screen while, on the other, Whitford and co. popped in and out of view “and just chit-chatted,” he said. The couple eventually turned it off and watched on TV like the rest of the country. “Honestly, it was very well done, but we — we like the national coverage,” Brice said, positioned in front of their computer at home next to her husband as they drank from cans of lime-flavored Spindrift and occasionally darted in and out of frame to attend to their two sons.

The fundraising circuit in Democratic politics was once the literal physical axis of money, influence, and cronyism that would converge not in smoky backrooms exactly but in the richly appointed living rooms of the very wealthy. Now it is the Zoom circuit. Tickets still cost money, but they don’t get you in a room with the president. They get you a Zoom link where the main attraction usually reads from a script and maybe takes questions before everyone clicks the bright red “Leave Meeting” button at the bottom of the screen. These are tepid affairs. They can produce unlikely combinations and hard pivots: the members of Pearl Jam asking Jill Biden about the death of Beau Biden, Doug Emhoff interviewing James Taylor. There is no ambiance, per se. The window of a Zoom call, even a private, password-protected Zoom call, does not feel like a place of community where candid statements and confidences can flow freely. It was at a fundraiser, over the clinking of expensive silverware, that Mitt Romney made his “47%” comments and Hillary Clinton referred to Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”

In addition to preferred viewing with Bradley Whitford, chairs of the inaugural were promised virtual briefings with the inauguration team as well as four “VIP tickets to future in-person event (date to be determined),” according to a copy of a summary of the Biden inaugural packages. Another donor who contributed at a lower level to the inaugural committee received a signed boilerplate letter from Biden. The donor passed on a photo of the letter, describing it in a text message as a “$5K letter.”

“There was a fraternal aspect to fundraising that was very difficult to replicate during the virtual COVID world,” said Michael Kempner, a longtime Democratic donor who raised money for Biden this year from his house in the Hamptons. “Being at an event, running into people, having conversations — none of that exists. It’s very difficult to create the kind of interpersonal relationships that you’d usually have.”

Brice and Houston are new to the Democratic fundraising world, a community populated by the same familiar names (Susie Tompkins Buell, Alan Patricof, Lady de Rothschild), many of whom are now well into or beyond their sixties, through the Clinton and Obama years. Biden, a 78-year-old who has served in Washington since his late twenties, shares many of their biggest benefactors, but his campaign and his presidency coincided both with a pandemic, which moved the vast majority of political activity to virtual platforms, and with a new era of “grassroots” fundraising. Last year’s Democratic primary cemented the power and popular appeal of small-dollar fundraising — the asks for $5, $10, or $25 dollars — and contributed to an already substantial distaste for traditional high-dollar fundraising. Bernie Sanders has referred to that community as a clique. Elizabeth Warren, in her campaign, swore off “pay-for-play fundraising,” promising not to solicit big checks or spend her time offering proximity to donors in exchange for big contributions, before declining to disavow a supportive super PAC in the last days of her campaign.

There is, of course, more money in politics than ever. Biden’s campaign became the first in history to raise $1 billion. Donors who gave $100,000 or more to the campaign and party’s joint efforts contributed nearly $200 million, according to the New York Times. This time four years ago, dozens of the most influential Democratic strategists skipped the Women’s March in 2017 on the weekend of Trump’s inauguration to attend a conference behind closed doors with 120 donors at the Turnberry Isle Miami, a luxury golf resort in Aventura, Florida, where they led panels like “What the Hell Just Happened?” and “Road to Fascism.”

Asked if there is a stigma now surrounding the donor world, longtime Clinton fundraiser Jill Iscol said, “I don’t know. Honest to god, I don’t know. Let’s face it — if we could get money out of politics, we all would.”

The Barneses are, in political speak, “bundlers,” or donors who raise large sums of money on behalf of a campaign from their own personal network of friends and acquaintances. Hillary Clinton’s bundlers were “Hill-raisers.” George W. Bush’s were called “Rangers.” The Clintons became best friends with their biggest fundraisers, in part because they were the people they felt comfortable around. During the “worst times” of his presidency, Bill would ask aides to “get Terry down here,” he’s said of one of the most prolific fundraisers in the party, Terry McAuliffe. Hillary has vacationed Susie Buell at her home in Bolinas, the small hippie community just north of San Francisco. On her 2016 campaign, she tasked an aide, De’Ara Balenger, with the role of “director of engagement,” or keeping tabs on her vast network of associates and navigating the blurred lines between friend, adviser, donor, and hanger-on. Efforts to keep donors and bundlers happy and engaged can invariably precipitate any number of problems, ranging from actual conflicts of interest to petty fights over ambassadorships and other small favors. After deciding that he wanted to be the Eastern Region designee on the Democratic Party’s Executive Committee when the role became vacant in 2018, Tonio Burgos, a lobbyist and mainstay of the New York and New Jersey politics, enlisted governor friends and even Biden to help whip votes for him, according to two people who recalled the effort.

Brice and Houston see themselves as part of a younger generation of fundraisers. “There will always be people writing big checks,” Brice said, but on Zoom, the barrier to entry is a little lower than usual. “There are people who can give $25 or $250 off an email and do a Zoom fundraiser from their kitchen with a glass of wine and kids running around,” she said, citing a fundraiser they hosted for Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock earlier this year attended by hundreds of people.

“I think there will be in-person events in the future, but I don’t think the world of virtual Zoom is ever going to be rolled back,” Brice said. “People find it easier— it’s less intimidating. You’re able to build more diverse fundraising networks.”

Houston is a lawyer and Brice worked in politics professionally. They started fundraising more heavily last year for the Democratic National Committee, and when Biden emerged as the party’s nominee last spring, they decided they would commit to raising for his campaign. They post pictures of their family with Biden (technically photos of their computer screen) on their Instagram accounts and keep up an active social media presence.

Their relationship with Biden has been forged in these quick snippets. On Jan. 11, the couple had some “one-on-one” time with Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff. The next night, they talked to Biden. “We’ve been on multiple Zooms like that throughout the campaign,” Houston said, “so where I think you might look at it like there would be a lot of pressure — ‘Did I say the right thing? Did I do the right thing?’ — this was not the first time. So there is somewhat of a relationship there.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Brice and Houston said they planned to spend the rest of the day watching the inaugural coverage on TV. They had another Zoom at 7 p.m.: a cocktail hour with fellow fundraisers that they’ve been attending since March.

“Yeah, those are usually pretty awkward, by the way,” said Brice.