HILLARY LEANS IN TO HER husband, teeth clenched in a polite smile: "Bill! I swear, you are so predictable. Stop ogling that woman in the black beret! It's Karl's wife, for heaven's sake."

The Inaugural Luncheon is underway in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, and the table assignments are offering a world-class opportunity for my favorite pastime, which is to make up dialogue for people I can see but not hear. Fifty of the highest-ranking government officials are assembled with 200 of their nearest and dearest for a post-speech nosh. The press has been offered access to the Statuary Hall balcony, overlooking the festivities. Which is where I sit, munching on a PB&J sandwich I brought with me, imagining the conversation below.

Table 7 looks promising. Seated around an elaborate but low-lying centerpiece are Bill and Hillary Clinton; Senator Edward Kennedy and the missus; and Karl Rove and his lovely wife--who is sporting a rhinestone-studded black beret.

They say one isn't supposed to talk politics, religion, or sex at the dinner table. But two prayers have been said, and, with Bill Clinton on hand and this being Washington, I can't see how they could possibly avoid the other two subjects. Then again, it's lunch, so maybe that rule doesn't apply.

Bill is in his element, chatting up everyone, then sharing a long pow-wow with The Architect himself. Rove pats Clinton on the back, smiling in a way that makes the rest of his soft, fleshy face ball up around his small, round nose. But the idea of friendly chatter between the pair is so mind-boggling that even my fevered imagination fails to script an appropriate dialogue.

Mrs. Rove elbows Karl and raises her eyebrows as a woman in knee-high boots and a brown Chanel-like suit leans in for a cheek kiss with House Speaker Denny Hastert. As she lays one on him, her knee bends and her foot kicks up behind her--a move usually reserved for end-of-date doorstep makeout sessions. Perhaps she is whispering in his ear: "Denny, I'm your biggest fan."

Another Table 7 denizen, Justice Stephen Breyer, glancing over at his colleague Antonin Scalia at Table 22, whispers into his wife's ear. I imagine him saying, "I wonder how Nino is getting along with Mary Cheney's girlfriend."

Indeed, Table 22, on the far side of the room, looks to be fertile ground for my little game. Mary Cheney is chatting up Colin and Alma Powell, while her partner Heather Poe seems to be making small talk with the Scalias. After initial pleasantries, I imagine the latter trio quickly reduced to discussing the menu, which--I happen to know because I have a copy--offers extensive historical background on the meal.

"Oh," says Heather, "I see we're having Roasted Quail with Brined Root Vegetables and Apple Wild Cherry Compote for dessert, in honor of the fact that 200 years ago, 'Lewis and Clark foraged the land for a bountiful harvest of fruits and berries.' How novel." The Scalias nod, unsure what to say next. Mrs. Scalia hazards a response: "Ah yes, and for the first course we'll have Scalloped Crab and Lobster, which was served at Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural ball exactly 100 years ago."

Awkward silence returns. Heather gives it another try: "Mary says you sometimes go duck hunting with her dad. Do you ever shoot quail?"

Also at Table 22 are Governor Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba; and Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. The two couples seem happy to sit quietly. Perhaps they are eavesdroppers and inventors of conversations like me.

At the end of the festivities, guests are presented with a souvenir--a cobalt bowl decorated with pewter thingamajigs and a commemorative inscription. No bowl is left behind, as the guests all schlep their bulky gift bags away, though at home their trophy shelves must already be crammed full of history swag. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pauses to exchange a few words with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, both dutifully carrying their bags. Perhaps Rumsfeld is grumbling: "Another damn commemorative bowl, eh? I guess we can't just leave the darn things here, can we Harry?"

Former President Clinton is the last to leave--even Hillary has long since vacated when he finally departs--and he's midway through thanking individual Capitol Police officers for their service at the luncheon when someone calls out the question I've been dying to ask. He smiles and replies: "What did Karl Rove and I talk about?" A pause. "We talked about presidential libraries."

--Katherine Mangu-Ward

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