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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

The ugly, unvarnished truth about inaugural balls

WASHINGTON - Here's another dirty little Washington secret. Inaugural balls are not glamorous. They are not even much fun. And presidents almost never like them.

But they still happen.

This year, at President Bush's second inauguration on Jan. 20, despite his obvious lack of interest in being on the dance floor, there will be nine balls: the Stars and Stripes Ball, the Liberty Ball, the Freedom Ball, the Democracy Ball, the Texas Wyoming Ball (separate from the private Black Tie and Boots Ball sponsored by the Texas State Society on Jan. 19), the Independence Ball, the Constitution Ball, the Patriot Ball, and the Commander-in-Chief Ball.

If past is prologue, Mr. Bush and Laura will make a brief stop at each, swirl around a few times, thank folks for coming and race to the next one, eager to get back to the White House and party with those invited to spend the night.

The truth about the balls is that they are tedious, overcrowded, and expensive. Most of them this year will be in the cavernous D.C. Convention Center. Whoopee.

Women who wear their fur coats wait in endless lines to check them and then reclaim them or carry their wraps miserably about all night. They secretly wonder why they spent all that time and money for a new dress when they spend the evening milling about. Limousine gridlock frays tempers. Bored guests stand in endless lines to spend $8 for a few sips of champagne in a flimsy plastic flute or $5 for warm soda in a plastic glass with a few insipid ice chips. People look about desperately for familiar faces in the throng. Everybody's feet hurt. The balls go from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Few stay that long.

The $40 million price tag for the inaugural - about the same as Mr. Bush's last inaugural - is paid by private contributions. Sponsors pay $100,000. Underwriters pay $250,000. And besides a lunch or dinner with Mr. Bush and/or Vice President Dick Cheney, they get free ball tickets.

That shows you how bad inflation really is. At the first "official" ball, at Long's Hotel, in 1809, James and Dolley Madison charged $4 each for the 400 tickets to their ball.

Many are asking why there is such a celebration this year during a war and after the deadly tsunami with thousands still missing. Woodrow Wilson did not hold a ball in 1913, arguing that the inauguration of a president is a solemn occasion. His presidency was solemn, too. Franklin Roosevelt held no ball in 1937, 1941, or in 1945. First, he said a ball would be inappropriate in a Depression. Then he cited World War II.

But there was no thought to canceling this year's balls, which are held as much to thank party supporters from around the country (and encourage them to keep shelling out) as for any other single reason. Instead, the theme for this year's inaugural events is "service," with homage to the military, fire and police personnel, volunteers, etc. Not that many of them will be going to the balls.

Those who do go are well-heeled Republicans who supported Mr. Bush, got their requests for tickets in early, and can afford several thousand dollars for a cold winter's weekend in the nation's capital.

The swearing-in on Jan. 20 is interesting and fun and majestic. The speech is sometimes memorable. The music and the poetry and the crowds are terrific. The parade with its youth marching bands is wonderful and, it is to be hoped, won't be canceled because of bad weather as happened in President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, when the temperature was minus 4 degrees. Many of the peripheral events are fun.

Sometimes the counter-inaugurals are memorable, such as the giant 25-foot-long rat that was carried by anti-war protesters during an inauguration for President Richard Nixon. And there are many elegant parties, where the true fat cats dine and dance and drink.

But the balls are grim, although not usually as grim as the one in 1873 when canaries keeled over frozen in their cages. Valves in musical instruments failed to work. The food on the banquet tables froze. Women danced wearing their coats and gloves to ward off frostbite.

It's a wonder that the balls are so popular.

In 1857, James Buchanan built a $15,000 building to hold 6,000 people who wanted to dine, dance, and party with him. President Bill Clinton had so many requests that he approved 14 balls. Even when President George H.W. Bush upped the price of a ball ticket to $175 each in 1989, they sold out.

If you must come, just to see for yourself how bad an inaugural ball can be, wear comfortable shoes, bring plenty of cash, and comfort yourself with this thought:

The President won't be having a good time either.



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