Inaugural ball: Not all it is cracked up to be

In the land of fairy tales and Washington,DC — at least during the quadrennial inaugural season — the mystique of the ball lives on....

Los Angeles | Published:January 20, 2009 10:57 pm

In the land of fairy tales and Washington,DC — at least during the quadrennial inaugural season — the mystique of the ball lives on.

Just the phrase “inaugural ball” conjures up images of a sea of tuxedoed men and chiffon-swathed women dancing under buttery light,elbows away from the newly sworn-in President of the US and the first lady. Over the years,the styles have changed,but the common denominator was immutable: the promise of a ballroom filled with elegance,history,power.

Actually,it’s a bunch of tired people looking for the cash bar or waiting in line at the coat check room. In the last few decades,a ticket to an inaugural ball,which could cost you anywhere from nothing to thousands,meant entrance to a cavernous hall or hotel ballroom with,more than likely,no place to sit and no food to eat and plenty of human gridlock. That’s if you got there before a fire marshal declared the place dangerously overcrowded.

This year,there are 10 official balls,and more than half are being held in the Washington Convention Center. That doesn’t include the passel of unofficial balls — some held that same night,some the previous evenings,none bearing the imprimatur of the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Most of the official balls are based on regions — Californians gravitate to the Western Inaugural Ball,whereas the Obama Home States Inaugural Ball is for Illinois and Hawaii guests. The real draw of the official balls is that the first couple is obligated to appear. But do the math: Their stay at each ball is,by necessity,fleeting — a matter of minutes. They walk onstage,they wave,the President says something moderately funny,they wave goodbye. Even if Barack and Michelle Obama wanted to,they couldn’t stay an hour at each ball,unless they started right after the inaugural luncheon.

Almost everyone who shows up at a ball the first time,high hopes in tow,ends up with that forlorn is-this-all-there-is?

A young New Orleans woman,Tammy Mayeux,found a place to sit on a staircase outside one of George H W Bush’s galas in the Washington Hilton in 1989 and ruefully described her experience to me.

“Balls are kind of different in New Orleans,” she said. “We have tables and food and drinks. I just walked in here and said,‘You mean we can’t sit down?’ “

“Everybody wants to be Cinderella for one night. So when they hear ‘ball’ they lose their minds,” said Heather Podesta,a Washington lobbyist and lawyer.

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