Inaugural tests limits of good times in bad

Simon is a Times staff writer. Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

As Washington gears up for a big night of inaugural balls, a delicate dance is taking place.

Planners want to stage a splashy celebration worthy of the historic moment but are doing it in tough economic times, perhaps even as President-elect Barack Obama calls for sacrifice in his inaugural address.

“Anything too flashy or expensive and the new presidency starts off on the wrong foot,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog. “It would be difficult to call for sacrifice on the one hand and toast with Dom Perignon in the other.”


Linda Douglass, spokeswoman for the inaugural committee, said planners were preparing for the most accessible, inclusive inauguration in recent history, noting that the National Mall would be open to anyone regardless of whether they had a ticket.

Still, a debate rages on.

“This is no time to party,” Janett Calland of Ohio, whose husband was recently laid off, wrote on “It would be a real impressive gesture for President-elect Obama and Mrs. Obama to elect to cancel parties and balls considering the state of the economy of our country at this time. . . . The masses are financially hurting, but the ‘money crowd’ is eating caviar and drinking champagne.”

Donald Baker of Kentucky replied: “Obama shouldn’t be denied his moment of celebration. . . . Lord knows the man is going to have his hands full enough soon.”

City officials project that they could spend $40 million or more for the event, expected to draw a record turnout. That is separate from the millions that the inauguration committee will raise from private donors to pay for official balls and other expenses.

At a time when the auto industry pleads for federal aid, planners of the Michigan inaugural dinner dance have scaled back their event -- a simpler menu, black tie optional, biodegradable paper plates instead of china, and no contributions from automakers.

“We need to be very sensitive to appearances,” said Debbie Dingell, president of the Michigan State Society, who talked about scaling back on champagne. “We won’t have premium brand. There won’t be shrimp, I’ll be blunt. But Michigan is known for its whitefish, and we’ll have whitefish.”


Yet it’s hard to hold back in a town that views the inauguration as its own version of the Oscars. Events include a celebrity-studded party planned by the Creative Coalition, with tickets starting at $10,000 per couple.

Jan Powell, chairing the Indiana Inaugural Ball, said she had had no trouble selling corporate sponsorships for $18,000-per-person tickets to the formal four-course dinner dance. “Even in rough economic times, people are perhaps looking for something to celebrate,” she said.

Jenifer Sarver of the Texas State Society said the group had sold 10,000 tickets to its Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball, which would have seven stages with entertainers.

“We’re trying to be respectful of the economic times by not doing anything too over the top,” she said, but added: “Texans certainly do love to have a good time.”

There is precedent, of course, for reins on the pomp of the day. Jimmy Carter gave up a limo ride to take his surprise stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue, and he set $25 as the maximum price for admission to official balls.

During the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt skipped the 1933 inaugural ball and canceled the 1937 ball. But Tim Blessing, a history and political science professor at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania, said it was questionable whether that was because of tough times “or simply because FDR disliked the balls.”


“He wanted hot chicken a la king for the inaugural lunch” at his first swearing-in, said Elizabeth B. Goldsmith, a professor and Fulbright scholar at Florida State University. “The housekeeper said no, too expensive. And they had chicken salad, rolls, unfrosted pound cake and coffee.”

Still, FDR’s first inauguration was far from sedate.

Warner Bros. sent a train load of Hollywood stars, including Busby Berkeley chorus girls who rode a float in the inaugural parade, led by cowboy star Tom Mix doing rope tricks on his horse, said Stephen Talbot, whose father, actor Lyle Talbot, made the trip.

“The very next day,” he said, “the actors all hustled over to a big movie palace in Washington -- the Earle Theatre -- to perform a live stage show before the screening of the big new Warner Bros. musical ‘42nd Street,’ whose theme was that even in the depths of the Depression, the show must go on!”

Blessing expected the Obama team to exercise some restraint. “It should be noted that the Obama camp had fireworks planned for his election evening victory,” he said, “but that he canceled them as not setting the right tone.”

Still others say the president-elect deserves an unfettered celebration.

Stephen Hess, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution, contended that Obama should not constrain his inaugural just because of the economy.

“In the Great Depression, everybody ran out to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” he said. “People want to celebrate, want to dance, want an excuse to be happy.”


“History teaches us that the party must go on,” said Jim Bendat, Los Angeles-based author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1789-2009.” “The general feeling seems to be that for one night it’s OK to have a big party.”

Donna Brazile, who was Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign manager in 2000, said it was important that Obama framed the transfer of power in just the right way.

“There are many ways to plan this celebration so it is not just seen as a festive celebration but a celebration of service, of people coming together from all walks of life,” she said. “I think they are going to set the right tone and it will be a combination of the traditional and understanding it’s a very important moment in our country’s history.”