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Obama Birthday Party: Who’s Still Invited?

Obama Birthday Party: Who’s Still Invited?

The former president scaled back the guest list for his party on Martha’s Vineyard. Who’s in and who’s out?

President Barack Obama in 2016. Mr. Obama has scaled back his 60th birthday celebration at his family’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Credit…A.J. Chavar/The New York Times

Annie Karni

Jay-Z and Beyoncé were still in, as of Friday.

David Axelrod and Larry David were out.

Former President Barack Obama’s 60th birthday had been anticipated as the biggest social event of the summer for alumni of his administration and friends of the Obama family — a celebrity-studded garden party at Mr. Obama’s $12 million Martha’s Vineyard mansion.

But this week, some invitees were treated to a cold dose of reality when they were abruptly cut from the guest list — while some of the boldest names were not. The party, the uninvited were told, had been scaled back because of growing concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

In what seemed like fodder for a future episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Mr. David, the comedian and a Martha’s Vineyard homeowner, was uninvited.

So were the majority of former Obama administration officials who had been looking forward to the reunion after an isolated year, and who generally credit themselves with helping create the Obama legacy that has allowed the former president to settle in so comfortably with the A-list crowd.

There was some solace among the government wonk set that they weren’t the only ones no longer welcome at porch drinks with Eddie Vedder, who was still expected to attend as of Friday. The late-night talk show hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien were also cut from the guest list.

Mr. Obama’s decision to cut back the reported 475-person guest list (a number that Mr. Obama’s camp never officially confirmed) was made almost a week after President Biden effectively conceded that the pandemic had come roaring back, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox and more likely to break through vaccine protections than all other known versions of the virus.

But as masks were put back on in many cities and anxieties rose, details of Mr. Obama’s party continued to dribble out. Steven Spielberg was on the guest list, The New York Post reported, along with Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Obama’s fellow Spotify-sponsored “renegade,” and George Clooney.

An unsubstantiated rumor that Pearl Jam was to perform had to be officially knocked down by both a band representative and Mr. Obama’s own planners. Part of a meat-free menu was being coordinated by the musician Questlove, a detail reported Friday by Bloomberg News.

Former administration officials said they were somewhat surprised Mr. Obama was carrying on with what appeared to be an over-the-top event, even though they said they were not concerned about catching the coronavirus while mingling outdoors with a mostly vaccinated crowd, all of whom had to submit negative tests to gain entry to the property. Many had rented houses together for the weekend.

Still, Democrats supportive of the former president privately expressed surprise at the casual disregard for optics and wondered why it took until just days before the party for Mr. Obama to change course.

For his part, Mr. Obama was soliciting advice from his most trusted advisers about what the best path forward was for revamping a costly, logistically complicated party that had been months in the making. The former president had baseball caps made for the occasion that read “44 at 60.” He had also hired a “Covid coordinator,” or compliance officer, to ensure the safety of guests.

Valerie Jarrett, one of the Obamas’ closest friends and advisers, was in favor of scaling back the party, according to people familiar with the planning. Mr. Obama, those people said, agreed that if his party was becoming a distraction from the White House’s messaging that everyone needed to get vaccinated and take extra precautions, he would adjust his plans.

“I fully support President Obama’s decision,” Ms. Jarrett said.

So did many residents of the island.

“A lot of islanders were very upset at the prospect of hundreds of people coming for the party,” said Rose B. Styron, the poet and widow of the novelist William Styron, who said she had been invited to a Friday night Obama birthday kickoff at the Winnetu Oceanside Resort. “Everyone is very nervous about getting together at all.”

Ms. Styron said she was hosting friends from California, the writer and producer Roderick Spencer and the actress Alfre Woodard, who had been invited to the main event at the Obama house on Saturday night.

“They didn’t hear that it had been canceled until they were getting on the plane from California,” Ms. Styron said. “We lucked out and we have them for the weekend now. I think they’re pretty happy, too.”

On Tuesday night, Melissa Winter, chief of staff to Michelle Obama, was one of at least eight staffers involved in the party logistics who had the unlucky job of placing phone calls asking former colleagues not to come. Hannah Hankins, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obama, also spent the evening placing those calls.

The calls set off frantic group text chains, with former officials trying to parse the meaning of “significantly scaled back” and figure out who had made the “close friend” cut.

It soon emerged that Jay-Z and Beyoncé were still invited, along with some of Mr. Obama’s oldest friends from Hawaii, who were spotted Thursday and Friday bowling and golfing with the former president, who was wearing his birthday cap.

Tom Hanks, one of the earliest celebrities to reveal he had the coronavirus last year and a longtime Obama ally, was also still invited, although it was not clear he would attend and had recently been spotted in Greece.

Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay had pulled out of the party earlier because of concerns over the Delta variant, according to two sources familiar with the party planning, letting the Obama camp off the hook of having to keep or cut them from the list. The White House had also said Mr. Biden was not going to come.

On Friday, it was still not clear exactly how big the event would be, but the island was buzzing with excitement, with tabloids like The Daily Mail snapping paparazzi shots of catering vans arriving at the Obama complex. Dinner and boat reservations had been booked up weeks in advance. Other events on the island, like an African American film festival, were proceeding as planned.

“There are a lot of people here for the event,” said Richard Taylor, a summer resident who writes a column on the historically Black Oak Bluffs section of Martha’s Vineyard for the Vineyard Gazette. “I’m sure they’ll be hosting smaller groups.”

Unlike Ms. Styron, Mr. Taylor said he had been looking forward to the party.

“He has 20-plus acres of land, and everyone was going to be outside,” he said. “You’re dealing with a sophisticated crowd. I think the concerns were a bit overblown.”