In the land of fairy tales and Washington, D.C. -- at least during the quadrennial inaugural season -- the mystique of the ball lives on.
Just the phrase “inaugural ball” conjures up images of a sea of tuxedoed men and chiffon-swathed women dancing under buttery light, elbows away from the newly sworn-in president of the United States and the first lady. Over the years, the styles have changed -- John F. Kennedy in white tie and tails, or Bill Clinton playing the saxophone -- but the common denominator was immutable: the promise of a ballroom filled with elegance, history, power.
Actually, it’s a bunch of tired people looking for the cash bar or waiting in line at the coat check room. In the last few decades, a ticket to an inaugural ball, which could cost you anywhere from nothing to thousands, meant entrance to a cavernous hall or hotel ballroom with, more than likely, no place to sit and no food to eat and plenty of human gridlock. And that’s if you got there before a fire marshal declared the place dangerously overcrowded. (It has happened.)
And let’s dispense with the grand notion of the inaugural ball. This year, there are 10 official balls, and more than half are being held in the Washington Convention Center.
That doesn’t include the passel of unofficial balls -- some held that same night, some the previous evenings, none bearing the imprimatur of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. If anything, they sound more fun -- the Hip Hop Inaugural Ball -- and quirkier. (The Lincoln 2.0 Ball at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday aims to channel the “Victorian essence of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball,” which took place in the same building.)
Most of the official balls are based on regions -- Californians gravitate to the Western Inaugural Ball, whereas the Obama Home States Inaugural Ball is for Illinois and Hawaii guests. The real draw of the official balls is that the first couple are obligated to appear. Season after season, whether there are five (Kennedy’s) or 14 (Clinton’s second inaugural), they show up. But do the math: Their stay at each ball is, by necessity, fleeting -- a matter of minutes. They walk onstage, they wave hello, the president says something moderately funny, maybe they dance briefly, then they wave goodbye.
Even if Barack and Michelle Obama wanted to, they couldn’t stay an hour at each ball, unless they started right after the inaugural luncheon.
The Obamas’ first stop of the night is to be the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, a different iteration from the other galas in that it offers lower-priced and free tickets. A portion of the tickets has been set aside for D.C. residents. The committee has put much public emphasis on the more inclusive (or, at least, less exclusive) nature of this ball, announcing that there will be webcasting and that it will be televised on ABC. That may pay off for the attendees -- the Obamas may stay longer.
“There may be more of a time commitment for the Neighborhood Ball because that’s going to be broadcast,” said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Tickets to the other balls are elusive unless you know someone connected to the inaugural committee or state officials helping to plan them. And for those who made sizable contributions to underwriting the inauguration, “one of the benefits is a ticket,” Douglass said. Like any ball worth its weight in fairy dust, you technically have to be invited. In most cases, you still pay for the ticket, and the base price for many is $150. (The ball in honor of military personnel and their families is free.)
Almost everyone who shows up at a ball the first time, high hopes in tow, ends up with that forlorn is-this-all-there-is? look. I should know. I experienced it firsthand and chronicled others going through it.
A young New Orleans woman, Tammy Mayeux, found a place to sit on a staircase outside one of George H.W. Bush’s galas in the Washington Hilton in 1989 and ruefully described her experience to me.
“Balls are kind of different in New Orleans,” she said. “We have tables and food and drinks. I just walked in here and said, ‘You mean we can’t sit down?’ ”
No, Tammy, you can’t sit down -- that is, unless you have bought a box on the periphery of the ballroom.
That’s what I wrote in the Washington Post. It was my third turn reporting on inaugural balls for the Post’s Style section. By then I knew all about disappointment. That night 20 years ago, it was my job to stay through the arrival of the president, but not all of the guests did. Tammy from New Orleans gave up when Bush hadn’t arrived by 11:30 p.m. That year, according to our reporting, the new president attended 11 balls. But maybe it was more. Even Bush wasn’t sure of his tally when he took the stage of the ball where I was stationed -- “our 13th or 14th event,” he told us.
But both the new president and I were sure of one thing when he did arrive -- at whatever waning hour: It was his last ball of the night. He was hoarse. I was relieved. We could both go home.
And yet the fantasy persists. Why else would a 27-year-old woman on Craigslist recently offer to trade her ovaries for a ticket to an inaugural ball? (Her posting was removed, but not before it made the rounds of blogs. )
“Everybody wants to be Cinderella for one night. So when they hear ‘ball’ they lose their minds,” said Heather Podesta, a Washington lobbyist and lawyer. (She means men as well as women.) She has no plans to attend a ball. “And the reality is that it’s 1,000 people crammed into a hall which should only hold 600. You don’t recognize a soul, everyone is in their finery and everybody is looking past their shoulders for a famous person, and it’s just unpleasant.”
Not that Podesta and her husband, Tony -- another well-established lobbyist -- aren’t celebrating during the inaugural festivities. The Podestas, both Democratic power players, will have seats at the swearing-in -- a much-coveted ticket. (“One of the restaurant owners here cornered me and said Madonna wants a seated swearing-in ticket,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s nice.’ ”) They are hosting two events themselves, and will attend a brunch in honor of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquisition of Shepard Fairey’s stylized portrait of Obama. (The Podestas donated the funds for the Smithsonian to acquire the portrait.)
For Washington insiders, the cache is in invitations to the more intimate events in private homes, clubs, glittering museums -- even if the Obamas themselves don’t show.
“We have plenty of chances to see Obama; that’s the difference,” said Conrad Cafritz, a D.C. businessman and real estate developer and Obama supporter. “There’s going to be a fusion of this White House with the city like no other.”
Those who score a ticket to a ball can expect a smattering of (free!) food this year: Crudites. Tortellini with roasted tomato sauce. Chilled chicken roulade. Pretzels. “Light fare,” Douglass said. There is music and some dancing, but better to think of it as the hugest cocktail party ever.
The dress is formal, and though some veterans swear by comfortable shoes, I remember seeing plenty of stilettos. To avoid the dreaded coat check line, political consultant Donna Bojarsky simply wore a sleeveless gown one year with no wrap. It was 20-some degrees outside. “Freezing” she said. “But, hey, I didn’t have to wait in any more coat check lines!”
That was no problem for George Washington’s 1789 inaugural gala for 300. It was held in May in New York City, where he was sworn in. He danced the minuet, and women cooled themselves with fans decorated with his profile. The first ball to be a part of the official program started with James Madison’s inauguration in 1809. First Lady Dolley Madison hosted it at a hotel. Four hundred tickets sold for $4 each.
Since then, the balls have grown in size and extravagance, with some notable calamities -- Ulysses S. Grant’s 1873 ball in an unheated structure on a frigid night caused 100 live canaries brought in cages as decorations to freeze to death. There were some subdued periods as well. Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding both banished the ball when they took office, declaring it too excessive.
Amy Weiss, a former deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House, went to a 1993 ball to celebrate Clinton’s first inauguration. She wore a long dress and comfortable shoes. “I remember searching endlessly for food, which I never found. A friend of mine wore a backpack into the ball and ended up being squished next to a woman in a sequined dress.” She recalls the backpack rubbing off hundreds of sequins: “She literally had a bald spot on the back of her dress.”
And yet Weiss, who runs a public relations firm in D.C., will probably hit a ball this year with her husband. Not everyone in Washington is jaded about the balls this year, she says.
“I think it’s a little like childbirth. You forget how bad it was,” Weiss said. “And I think there is a sense of excitement because it is the Obamas and people want to go just to get a glimpse of them.”
Certainly, the people making the trek to D.C. -- even the ones with a quiver of invitations to smaller, more exclusive gatherings -- feel that way.
“The inaugural ball is like going to senior prom,” said Steve Cohen, an early Obama supporter and fundraiser from Chicago. “I know it will be anticlimactic, but there’s no way I can miss it. I don’t want to be the only person who didn’t go to the ball.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Having a ball
Major balls in conjuction with Tuesday’s inauguration:
Name: Ticket price
Youth Inaugural Ball: $75
Obama Home States Inaugural Ball: $150
Biden Home States Inaugural Ball: $150
Eastern Inaugural Ball: $150
Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball: $150
Southern Inaugural Ball: $150
Western Inaugural Ball: $150
Neighborhood Inaugural Ball: Free
Commander in Chief’s Inaugural Ball: Free
Source: Presidential Inaugural Committee. Graphics reporting by Lolly Bowean
Los Angeles Times
Previous Column One articles are available online.