Inaugural Ball Survival Tips

On January 12, 2009, in DCView, by Focus Washington

Welcome to the Inauguration

I know that all the Washington insiders have said it is a waste of money and time to attend the Inauguration day festivities, especially the balls. There is something to that advice, but if you’ve never been to an Inauguration, this is certainly the one to attend. It doesn’t need to be emphasized that this is an historic event.

While it is true that the estimated two to four million coming to Washington for the Inauguration won’t actually see as much as those who remain in the comfort of their living rooms watching on television, there is still the factor of being able to say, “I was in Washington for Barak Obama’s Inauguration.”

I want to offer some words of advice to surviving an Inauguration for all those people coming into town for the festivities. In the years I’ve lived and worked here, I’ve been to several Inaugurations as a reporter. I’ve sat in an icy rain covering the Inaugural Address and stood in the cold reporting along the Pennsylvania parade route. I’ve also been to a few of the official balls at Union Station and the Sheridan Park Hotel. For those who want to be there for the Inaugural Address and parade, the best advice is dress warm and wear comfortable shoes, or boots. Nearly everyone has read about the big snowfall the day before the John F. Kennedy Inaugural and the bitter cold that caused the cancellation of Ronald Reagan’s second Inauguration. It’s the middle of January in Washington, so expect the worst.

It can be a painful experience to attend one of the official Inaugural Balls. The balls are always crowded and uncomfortable. In the ones I’ve attended, there is no place to sit, it is too crowded to dance, there is nothing to eat, and it is virtually impossible to get a drink. People beautifully dressed, mill about the ballroom and wait for the President and First Lady to arrive. When they come they walk onto the stage, wave and do a brief dance and then rush off to the next ball. With the street traffic the disaster it usually is and probably will be worse this time, it is difficult for even the President to get to the 10 or 11 balls he needs to visit. Once the visit is over there is little reason to stay at the ball.

If you are fortunate enough to be invited to one of the private balls, sponsored by one of the state societies or a lobbying or legal firm, those can be elegant and fun. It should be pointed out the President is highly unlikely to attend any of these, but the private functions take on the luster missing from the official events.

For those of us who are Inaugural Ball veterans, there are survival lessons. For example: wear comfortable shoes — women should avoid high heels; hire a car and driver or take metro – don’t drive. If you can avoid checking a winter coat or expensive fur, do so. It is also advisable to not wear that expensive Neimann Marcus gown or mink that could easily be ruined or lost in the crush. If you have spent the money for a car and driver, leave the coat in the car. There were almost riots at one of the Reagan Inaugural Balls at the coat check with long lines and people jumping over the counter to find their own coats. Plan to have dinner before or after the ball, because you won’t get food there. Don’t expect to see any political stars or even media celebrities. They will be at the private events, although a few congressmen and senators will often stop by at balls where they know constituents will be.

All that aside, if you have never attended an Inaugural Ball, this is the year to attend one. If I had never attended one and receive an invitation to attend one this year, I would go. It costs thousands of dollars on travel, hotel, transportation, clothing, and meals for an out-of-town couple to attend one of these events, but in attending, the couple becomes is a witness to history for one of the most historic Inauguration in American history. When you get back home you can regale your friends on what it was like to be part of President Barak Obama’s 2009 Inauguration. Expect annoying problems and discomfort, but don’t pass up the opportunity to be part of it.

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