Inaugural Hell

Message to you out-of-towners heading to Washington, D.C., for your first presidential inauguration: You will be miserable.

Scott Andrews / AP

January 20 is shaping up to be the inauguration celebration of our lifetimes. Which is fitting, because there’s a dirty little secret about Washington, D.C., and the inaugural balls: If you’ve ever been to one, you’ll never go back.

Inaugurals are a miserable experience. This will come as sad news to the Obamaphiles who forked over checks for $50,000 to be granted the title of “finance chair” for the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC). It will probably be even sadder news to those who opted for the $300,000 package, which gives them four tickets to all official inaugural events. Except if you read the not-so-fine print: That $300,000 doesn’t include any tickets to the actual inauguration itself. Those tickets are free, but “controlled” by Congress; “be in touch with your Congressperson or Senator,” the Obama people suggest. By now though, it’s too late; many congressional offices have even raffled off their spots. (Say what you will about the Bushies, but back in 2005, when a lot more people liked them, they gave out a bunch of VIP seated inaugural tickets for free with your ball tickets, which went for a mere $500 a pop.) Thus, those big donors wanting to see Obama put his hand on the Lincoln Bible are advised by PIC solicitors to consider doing so as “walk-ins.” As a PIC representative put it, “President Obama chose to put the administration together with more urgency than the Inauguration.”

“The official balls are basically like bad proms,” says the wife of one well-connected congressman.

So, what exactly does one get for $50,000? Your contribution entitles you to a late-night event on Saturday, January 17, a welcome brunch with an unnamed special guest the following day, unspecified welcoming events, evening events, a thank-you dinner, a breakfast meeting on Martin Luther King Day, and various bipartisan dinners. The “bi’s” in bipartisan are still TBD. Since lobbyists, corporations, political action committees, and registered foreign agents can’t contribute to Obama’s inauguration, Republicans, like exotic hothouse tropical flora, will have been imported, for reduced rates or even for free. And according to the initial inauguration invites, as a bonus, your $50,000 donation also entitles you to be shaken down further for Hillary Clinton’s “debt relief” and “the Al Franken Recount Fund.”

Still want to go to inauguration? Well, there are some things worth knowing. For starters, there are only a select few official balls, about ten, where the first and second families even make an appearance. That leaves some 50 lesser parties and events (like the Farm Bureau’s “Piggy Prom”) where your best shot of getting a glimpse of the Obamas is if there’s a hotel bar nearby with a TV tuned to a live feed from C-SPAN.

The PIC has promised that the Obamas will attend ten “official balls”—but these specially sanctioned venues won’t be available to the general public. And even those ball tickets aren’t quite as hot as you may think. “The official balls are basically like bad proms,” says the wife of one well-connected congressman. A less generous view comes from a local D.C. Democratic Party activist: "These are probably the worst parties in the world. You are packed cheek-to-jowl, people spill drinks on you and step on your dress." At her last ball, she says, "I wore a top and a skirt. One of my friends from out of town wanted to get all dressed up, and I said, 'Don't bother.' After we had been there for about ten minutes, she looked at me and said, 'You were so right. Now what do I tell my friends back home about my glamorous night?' I said, 'Just make something up.'"

There are only a few locations in Washington where it’s even possible to host a really big party and maintain extremely tight security, and they often involve a basement. One designated spot, the Washington Hilton, has a large basement ballroom where they keep the air temperature in the 60s and the white curved ceiling with its giant holes and creepy tinted lights looks like a relic from Darth Vader’s Death Star. But in terms of people per square inch, the biggest ball site by far is the D.C. Convention Center, just north of the capital’s version of Chinatown. In other seasons of the year, its basement space is home to posh events like the D.C. auto show. Yet for one night, the rotating car platforms will be put away, replaced with tacky bars where you need to stand in line with your drink tickets. And by the time you get in that line, you will be grateful, because by now you will have been standing in line for at least an hour, most of it outside in the frigid cold.

Actually, at inaugural balls the outdoor lines begin long before you even reach the building. Because of security, if you are lucky enough to have a car and driver, a limo, or even a cab, and survive the near-total gridlock enveloping Washington, you will still have to walk in a line snaking past the jersey wall barricades, around the curbs, and over to the next line to clear security. And that’s the best-case scenario. Four years ago, it snowed on the morning of the inauguration. The streets and sidewalks were icy and slushy. Men skidded in patent dress shoes, women tottered in four-inch Louboutins. Everyone shivered. And then waited outside, airport-style, to have their bags searched, cell phones tested, IDs checked, and then to pass through the metal detector gates. Inside the ball, there is yet another line for the football field-size coat check. (Don’t wear a coat that you wouldn’t happily donate to charity. They don’t always come back.) There is also a line actually to make your way down, down, down to the “ballrooms.”

Generally, the ballroom is dimly lit (probably so you can’t quite see the ordinariness of the place), making it exceptionally difficult to find friends in a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people. Thus, there are a lot of ballgoers, dressed to the nines, trying to look as if they have a purposeful destination, but who are in fact wandering aimlessly around the room. But this is their chance to see their new president, the first lady, the Bidens. And guests do see them. Amid wild cheers, they drop by for ten minutes to stand on the specially constructed stage, say a word of thanks, do an obligatory dance, and then, to more wild cheers, are whisked off in the massive presidential motorcade to the next ball. If you’re down on the ballroom’s actual dance floor, about a quarter of a city block away, your best chance of catching a glimpse of the Obamas and the Bidens is going to be on the strategically placed Jumbotrons.

So, are there any more intimate soirees in Washington? There are indeed, but most are private, and the jockeying for invites is already fierce. The Kuwaiti ambassador and his wife are set to co-host a pre-inaugural party with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; Don Graham, the CEO of The Washington Post; architect Leo Daly; and Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, two days before the official swearing-in. Oprah is supposedly planning a party, and the Screen Actors Guild is hosting a dinner, presumably for Hollywood’s A-list. The Environmental and Clean Energy Ball, to be held at the Sequoia Restaurant in Georgetown on inauguration night, has already scored a major coup; it sold out in one day and boasts that it will be hosting almost President Al Gore, who’s also planning his own ball. Ticket holders have also been told that the Obamas, big fans of clean energy and green jobs, are “expected to drop by.” Biden and his wife, Jill, may even take a page from Dick and Lynne Cheney’s book and host a small post-inaugural party later in the week for friends and supporters inside a large heated tent on the grounds of the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory, while camouflaged security teams with painted faces roam about outside through the bucolic trees and bushes.

Should you score a ticket to the actual swearing-in, you may want to arm yourself with offerings from the L.L. Bean catalog. Wolfgang Ischinger, the last German ambassador to the US and a big fan of icy Alpine skiing, says he has “never been so cold in my entire life” as he was sitting in the coveted diplomatic section for Bush’s second inaugural.

Post-inauguration, however, most of the city’s resident elite will forgo all the official events and gather for small private parties at restaurants or luxurious homes and “leave the inaugural prom-ing to the out-of-towners.” Those out-of-towners will be more than a bit peeved to discover that among President-elect Obama’s many promises of change, he never included the inaugural fete.

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Lyric Wallwork Winik is an award-winning writer and author and the Washington correspondent for Parade Magazine. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washingtonian Magazine, and Forbes FYI, among other publications. Her next book will be about Magellan’s Voyage for Crown, and she is married to the best-selling historian Jay Winik.