From the pages of
If the city of Washington ever took a truth serum - it would probably concede to a touch of envy of Hollywood. After all that town on the left coast is party central. With a slew of annual awards nights such as the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys - not to mention numerous movie premieres - the city seems to be in permanent party mode. Yet once every four years - with Olympic Games-like regularity - Washington gets to grab the spotlight for the Presidential inauguration. And as if to make up for the fact that its celebrations are few and far between - for that one week Washington goes into revelry overdrive.
This coming week will see D.C. awash in alcohol, appetizers and tri-colored party favors as Republicans celebrate the coronation of George II.
Those who live in Washington or who make the pilgrimage to the nation's capital will find a wide array of bashes competing for their attendance. There are broadly three genres of party. Always considered the prime tickets are the official inaugural balls on Saturday night - just hours after the new President takes the oath. But sometimes there is as much fun to be had at some of the plethora of parties thrown by individual societies representing various states - which mainly take place on the two nights before the big day. The third strand of celebrations are those given by organizations, lobbyists and special interest groups who use the opportunity of an inauguration to attempt some old-fashioned buttering-up of politicians.
Just the President and a few thousand of his closest friends....
The official balls are undoubtedly the hottest ticket. Though past inaugurations have seen as many as 11 or 12 simultaneous balls taking place throughout the town, George Bush has opted for a more modest 8 bashes on his big night. These have been scattered throughout the Washington metropolis. The parties are divided up into geographical groupings - and of course to squeeze 54 states (and dependencies such as Guam) into 8 buildings inevitably leads to some strange bedfellows. Republicans from Nevada and Oklahoma will chow down with colleagues from American Samoa and Montana in one hotel - along with Bush supporters from 14 other states. Across town at the D.C. Armory, citizens of 16 other states will mingle in perfect harmony. Interestingly, only one of the 54 groups is isolated in a building with no other states present. And that state is Florida - which has been placed in party solitary at the National Building Museum. Could this be First Brother Jeb's penance for his state's having caused the five-week delay in the party planning?
Despite the shortened lead-time - the ball organizers claim to be in good shape. Several thousand of George W. Bush's closest personal acquaintances will shell out $125 and up for the pleasures of the night. According to the official press release these will include hot and cold heavy hors d'oeuvres (I'm not sure what constitutes "heavy") world class entertainers (names not available at press time) and that mainstay of a self-reliant economy - the cash bar.
Of course since each ball has to accommodate corporate sponsors, lobbyists and even the elected representatives of the people - attendees will probably not get more than a glimpse of the new president. In the same way as Hollywood premieres have an inner sanctum and an inner, inner sanctum - only the high bank-rollers are likely to be pressing the Presidential flesh as he flits from ball to ball. Or those who may break a filibuster in the Senate.
Incidentally a high roller at the Bush inauguration is one who has given up to the maximum of $100,000. Clinton it appears was far too lax in this department. He foolishly capped individual donations for his 1996 inauguration at $100. No wonder he ran into trouble after the election!
From grits to glamour: The state of the state parties
Cynics and disappointed Democrats will at least have to concede that Bush is honoring the official theme of his inauguration - "Celebrating America's Spirit Together." Everywhere there is the spirit of diversity and inclusion. Prospective Attorney-General John Ashcroft - who is a member of a church which forbids dancing - will courageously attend galas where men and women will actually partake in ballroom dancing! The new President - who swore off drinking 14 years ago - will brave all eight of the night's parties - even though rampant drinking will be taking place as conservatives celebrate the prospective return of trickle-down by glugging down.
Thursday and Friday night are taken up with bashes thrown by individual state societies - which exist to bring together their expatriates living in the DC area. The organizations which host these parties are avowedly bi-partisan - and the galas are certainly open to those of all political persuasions. But it is usually - and quite understandably - the case that supporters of the party whose candidate got the lesser amount of votes in the presidential election are less inclined to party that year. However - even though Bush secured half a million votes less than Al Gore, his supporters are putting a brave face on and will be making merry.
Some of these events are skillfully themed to play up a state's strong points. For example California is throwing a lunch on Thursday with a fashion show at which impossibly-slender models will parade hot fashions and movie costumes while honorary Hollywood mayor Johnny Grant looks on. That evening, the Kentucky Society Of Washington (this year's president - Charlie Grizzle) hosts its quadrennial Bluegrass Ball which will feature a Henry Clay look alike, copious amounts of bourbon and Kentucky delicacies - and that doesn't mean buckets of KFC. And on Friday night, over 4,000 citizens of Illinois will gather to pay their respects to fellow Illinoisans such as Speaker Dennis Hastert and Clinton thorn-in-chief George Will.
Not every state can host a ball. Some states, such as Alaska, are hosting cocktail receptions to show their excitement at the inauguration of George Bush. John Raffetto - president of the Alaska State Society - told me "this is an exciting time because all three members of the Congressional delegation are chairmen of powerful committees; and an oil-friendly Republican is entering the White House." So much for those who stereotype Alaskans as tree-huggers. Raffetto promised that they would be serving "lots of great stuff from Alaska, such as smoked salmon, Alaska-brewed beer and dog mushers." I was unable to comprehend what a dog musher is. But I did discover that the reception was being sponsored by Alaska's largest oil pipeline company.
Another state with a small but interesting party is New Hampshire. Though the state society is not huge it will be serving up appetizers based on New Hampshire seafood to a fascinating cross-section of state politicos such as Senator Bob Smith, ex-Governor John Sununu and possibly Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card (who is from just across the border in Massachusetts). But given New Hampshire's importance in presidential primaries - those interested in handicapping the 2004 elections should keep a keen eye on attendees. How better to schmooze the granite machinery than by paying homage to the state over a lobster crepe in a hotel just two blocks from the White House?
The hottest ticket of the many state parties is undoubtedly Friday night's Texas state celebration - which has now been upgraded into an official ball. Titled "The Black Tie 'N' Boots Inaugural Ball" - it will feature entertainment from top Texan country stars and a visit from the President-elect. Nothing could do more justice to the type of event this is than by quoting from the official news release. It informs us that this will be: "The only inaugural bull to feature a Texas Longhorn steer. The only inaugural ball where guests can have their picture made with a 2,500 pound Brahmin bull. The only inaugural ball where guests can have their picture made sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet." The caterers estimate that they will serve "7,000 pounds of Texas brisket, 6,000 pounds of smoked ham, 60,000 pieces of jumbo shrimp and 1,200 pounds of peach cobbler." The tone in Washington is certainly about to change...
And then there are the alternative parties...
Saturday night's official balls start at 7pm and are due to swing into the wee hours - but there are several events which will compete for attention during the evening. One of the keenly anticipated bashes is the fourth Enviromental Inaugural Ball. Started in 1989 for the senior Bush's inauguration, this popular party hosted by an across-the-board group of politicians and environmental groups did very well during the two Clinton inaugurals and always attracted cabinet secretaries and congressional members. A good attendance this year may be a bell-weather of how seriously the Bush administration intends to deal with environmental matters. Organizers are hoping to install a rain forest exhibit at the party. But nothing that a couple of experienced oil men couldn't clear away swiftly.
The hottest unofficial party is without doubt the late-night Saturday gala being thrown by The Creative Coalition. Astutely timed to attract DC movers and shakers as they leave the official balls - this carefully bi-partisan bash by the organization which channels the social and political energies of entertainers on issues such as the First Amendment - boasts celebrities ranging from William Baldwin, Tom Arnold and Ron Reagan Jr. to Juliette Lewis and Bo Derek. Politico hosts for the evening include Senators John Breaux and Arlen Specter - an odd couple who underscore the mood of those who are calling out for an end to partisan sniping. The party is invitation only - but with its Hollywood glow it resembles Oscar night's Miramax party - the hip party everyone wants to end the evening at.
After all the partying - most of elite Washington will wake up on Sunday morning with a massive hangover. Not helpful given that Sunday is the day of the traditional White House open house - at which members of the public who DON'T have thousands of dollars to splash around or friends in high places - can visit the nation's home free of charge. Fortunately, our new president has sworn off the grape and grain. So Dubya may be the only person sober enough to open up the doors to the great American public.