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Guest column

Inaugural's promise: gridlock, excess

Published January 19, 2005

Thursday is the day that ordinary Washingtonians gnash their teeth and hope it will all go away - the presidential inaugural, that is. I lived through a lot of them in more than 25 years in Washington and assure you that each is a logistical mess. As Lyndon Johnson once said, "Never have so many paid so much and danced so little."

This year's event has already swelled to nine presidential balls. (Richard Nixon took the usual array of four balls and made them six).

No other inaugural has included a commander-in-chief ball, but this one will open a special dance by that name, free to 6,000 servicemen and women who have spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Presidents traditionally try to appear at every ball, meaning they spend about three minutes at each dance. But the photo-op possibilities at the commander-in-chief ball will probably outdraw the balls that high-paying constituents attend. These are the people who have to rent a limousine, who check their fur coats with only a faint hope of getting them back and who suffer an indifferent dinner and worse drinks in a stuffy ballroom crowded to the point of standing-room only.

Downtown Washington will suffer as no other municipality does. The city is almost never reimbursed for what it has to lay out for extra police and other expenses. (It has already been rebuffed by this year's inaugural committee.) The Secret Service has arranged to close off 100 square blocks. There will be no parking, no cabs; even the hot dog vendors have been chased away. The only way to get around is to rent a limo and every stretch car on the eastern seaboard will be pressed into service.

Fancy offices that front Pennsylvania Avenue traditionally hold ritzy parade-viewing parties where celebs can munch shrimp and down liquor while gazing at the parade from warm and cozy quarters. This year Secret Service security is making entry to these affairs a nightmare. They have set up 22 security checkpoints and only those with satisfactory photo ID and an invitation can cross the police lines to enter a building that fronts the parade route.

According to the Washington Post, the big-time donors who have coughed up $250,000 apiece get 80 tickets to eight inaugural events, while pikers who have donated $100,000 will get 38 tickets for six events. These are usually doled out to politicians, political appointees and others with whom the corporate donors want to curry favor.

Almost no true Washington insider will deign to actually go to an inaugural ball. They much prefer the intimate gatherings like the late-night dinner Buffy Cafritz is giving for 250 more or less intimate friends. And it's all very bipartisan, anyway. For example, Debby Dingell, the wife of Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., hosts one of the biggest private bashes on behalf of the General Motors Foundation.

There was absolutely no chance this monster party was going to be called off, either because of the war in Iraq or the suffering of the tsunami victims. Only presidents James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have been inaugurated during wartime. Madison had the first inaugural ball in 1809. Woodrow Wilson, however, called off the partygoing in 1913 before we got into World War I. And FDR, already ill and dying, kept his third-term inaugural private.

George Washington dined alone after his inauguration in New York. Martha wasn't even there. John Adams left town so he wouldn't be a part of Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inaugural. Jefferson, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, walked to and from the Capitol. Many remember Jimmy Carter leaving his limousine in 1977 to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

And what about weather, always a terror in January? John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural was held in a blizzard but JFK looked good wearing no coat to give his inaugural address. (He wore long underwear under his suit.) It was the luckless and coatless Benjamin Harrison who caught pneumonia after his inaugural speech, dying a month later. At Ulysses S. Grant's second inaugural party, held in a tent, it was so cold the champagne froze, as did the canaries that were supposed to fly around chirping cheerful sounds.

I well remember Ronald Reagan's second inaugural, when the parade was canceled because it was so cold. I was working for a public relations firm that opened its 12th and Pennsylvania offices to the privileged. It was so cold that nary a celebrity ventured out and we all sat around watching the ice sculptures melt and the shrimp harden until our one big name turned up: the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and his entire family.

Probably the only peoples' inaugural was Andrew Jackson's in 1829, when 20,000 boisterous citizens came to the White House to munch free cheese and drink punch, many of them falling out of the windows. All told the citizens did thousands of dollars of damage to drapes, furniture and windows. At Jimmy Carter's inaugural, Floridians and Georgians in Washington got to stomp around the East Room, but no booze was permitted.

This year much effort will be spent to keep counter-inaugural people, war protesters and other dissidents far away. But the ordinary citizen won't do much better. What used to be free sidewalk space for parade viewing has largely been usurped by paid bleachers. There are press reports of scalpers offering tickets for prime seats at extortion prices.

So stand by for another example of unrelieved wretched excess: the great American presidential inaugural.

Jerry Blizin, a retired journalist, lives in Tarpon Springs.

[Last modified January 19, 2005, 00:32:23]

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