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Navigating the Ins and Outs
Of the Presidential Inauguration

by Anna Gawel

For the fourth and final time, President Barack Obama was sworn into office last month. Why four times for a two-term president? He underwent the ritual twice in 2009 because Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts Jr. flubbed the 35-word oath of office the first time around, so it was repeated the next day to make sure it was legally sound.

Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
President Barack Obama dances with Air Force Staff Sgt. Bria Nelson, while first lady Michelle Obama dances with Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Timothy Easterling during the Commander in Chief’s Ball at the Washington Convention Center, which held the two official balls of the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

This year, the oath was repeated because the constitutionally mandated date for the U.S. president to be sworn in (Jan. 20) fell on a Sunday, so the official inauguration was held a day a later. But the United States can’t technically be leaderless for 24 hours, so a private swearing-in was still held Sunday.

Similar arrangements were made for Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, whose second-term inaugurations were also subject to the “Sunday exception.”

It’s one of the many quirks of presidential inaugurations, a quadrennial celebration unique to American politics. Obama has made inaugural history on several fronts — as the nation’s first black president and presiding over the largest inauguration in history, with more than 1.8 million people jamming into the National Mall to mark the occasion in 2009.

This year’s festivities were expected to be more muted (they usually are for second-term presidents and it would be difficult to match the excitement of ’09), but the 57th Presidential Inauguration was still big by any measure.

Estimates of crowd size ranged from 600,000 to 1 million, still making it one of the best-attended inaugurations in history. Because it was held on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day (only the second time the inauguration has fallen on the holiday), Obama was sworn in using two bibles, one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other belonging to the slain civil rights icon.

Credit: DOD photo by EJ Hersom
The U.S. Navy Band marches during the 57th Inauguration Day parade, in which 2,100 service members from each of the five branches marched and about 5,000 additional troops supported inauguration festivities.

The elaborate spectacle featured more than 50 various ceremonies, with the main events being the National Day of Service on Jan. 19 and the swearing-in at the Capitol, inaugural parade and evening balls on Jan. 21. Everything went off largely without a hitch, thanks in part to some 50,000 volunteers who signed up to help with the logistics.

To make this year’s inaugural parade more efficient, for instance, organizers worked to tighten the turning radiuses of the eight custom-designed floats, making the parade a little smoother for the 8,800 people and nearly 200 animals who marched along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Photo: The European Union Delegation to the United States
European Union Ambassador João Vale de Almeida stands by the inauguration platform where President Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term. De Almeida tweeted about the day’s events (@ValedeAlmeidaEU).

That’s not to say there wasn’t any drama. Beyoncé admitted to lip-synching the national anthem. The rapper Lupe Fiasco created a small fiasco of his own when he was escorted off the stage at the RockOn party after he began criticizing the president. (At least Kelly Clarkson’s rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and James Taylor’s “America the Beautiful” were sung without incident.)

A few Jumbotron TVs along the National Mall flickered during Obama’s speech. An anti-abortion protester climbed a tree by the Capitol Reflecting Pool and refused to get down (and was later banned from the city). And at the British ambassador’s residence, where an elite group of guests had gathered for tea and champagne on Saturday night, journalist Barbara Walters tripped on a stair and cut her forehead, sending her briefly to the hospital.

Despite a few hiccups, the inauguration was fairly quiet — though there were plenty of parties, some louder and bolder than others.

Photo: Gail Scott
From left, Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago Neil Parsan, Ambassador of Panama Mario Jaramillo, and Honorary Consul General of Botswana Robert S. Shumake, CEO of ShuFund Capital, were among the organizers of the 2013 Ambassadors Inaugural Ball.

The presidential inauguration in fact has become synonymous with the thicket of balls, brunches and receptions that compete for Washington’s glitterati. The very first inaugural ball was held in 1809 for James Madison. Tickets were $4.

Times have changed.

A ticket today can range anywhere from $100 to $1,000 and up. The balls have become big business, and every four years new ones sprout up looking to cash in, though not all are as grand — or legit — as they claim to be. In the 2009 inaugural frenzy, the American Music Ball with Dionne Warwick was canceled the day of the event, while another ball, ostensibly for war veterans, also fizzled at the last minute. The organizers vanished and guests were left holding the bag for the $250 to $500 they shelled out for tickets.

So it’s important to do your homework before plunking down a few hundred dollars for the chance to party with the president. For one thing, the president, first lady and vice president only make an appearance at the official inaugural balls — not the dozens of official-sounding but still unofficial parties around town.

In 2009, the Obamas stopped at 10 official balls, creating a traffic mess (the record, by the way, goes to Bill Clinton, who attended 14 inaugural balls in 1997). This year there were only two: the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball for active-duty and reserve members of the military, and the Inaugural Ball, both held inside the Washington Convention Center.

Photo: Ambassador of Monaco Gilles Noghes
Ambassador of Oman Hunaina Sultan Ahmed Al Mughairy bundles up for the inauguration. Ambassadors are taken to the swearing-in by the State Department, after which they attend a luncheon at Blair House.

Though there were only two, the balls were still pretty massive, with some 40,000 people spread out over five exhibit halls and 700,000 square feet of space — a sea of tuxes and ball gowns rocking out to Alicia Keys and Smokey Robinson while trying to nab a glass of wine.

But if you didn’t snag a ticket for the official balls, there were more than enough unofficial events — with a little something for everyone.

There was a Kids Inaugural Concert with performances by Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder. The state societies held their well-established balls, with the Texas State Society’s Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball at the Gaylord National Resort being one of the most popular.

Meanwhile, Hollywood stars flocked to the Creative Coalition Inaugural Ball at the Harman Center for the Arts. The environmentalists headed to the Green Inaugural Ball at the Newseum, where Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise appearance. In-demand crooner John Legend headlined the Hip-Hop Inaugural Ball as well as “The Generation Now” party.

Even the small-scale events were a mash-up of big names from the worlds of media, Hollywood and politics. Actress Ashley Judd, rumored to be considering a Senate run, put on her politico hat at a dinner hosted by Atlantic Media Co. owner David G. Bradley, while fellow actress Eva Longoria, co-chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, stopped by the Café Milano brunch hosted by Daily Beast editor Tina Brown.

Ambassador of Botswana Tebelelo Seretse, right, and her guest arrive at the 2013 Ambassadors Inaugural Ball, proceeds of which went to benefit micro-finance company ShuFund Capital, the Meriwether Foundation, the Kit Entrepreneurs Need Opportunities (KENO) Foundation, and AthleTECH.

Brunches, in fact, attracted a string of A-listers this year, with hosts ranging from Google to the Washington Performing Arts Society. Different nationalities and ethnicities also hold events to honor the president, from the Africa Society of the World Bank/IMF, to the local Muslim community, to the Indian Diaspora.

Even Washington’s diplomatic corps is part of the day’s pageantry. The State Department takes the city’s foreign ambassadors to the swearing-in, where they get to sit (in order of when they presented their credentials) alongside elected officials, Supreme Court justices, military leaders and family members of the president and vice president on the platform where the president delivers his address.

There, many take photos of the proceedings, just like the members of Congress and others who are among the lucky 1,600 to be allowed on the platform. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tweeted a photo of Obama giving his speech. European Union Ambassador João Vale de Almeida also tweeted about the day’s events (@ValedeAlmeidaEU), commenting in one tweet that “Obama #inaug2013 speech had tonalities of inaug2009, Ambassadors agree. I welcome his very clear commitment to fight climate change.”

Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago Neil Parsan, left, and Miss USA Nana Meriwether attend the 2013 Ambassadors Inaugural Ball held at the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square and sponsored by GrupoMex, Signet Jewelers, Botswana Tourism and other companies.

Ambassador Claudia Fritsche of Liechtenstein, a veteran of several presidential inaugurations, said the pomp and circumstance never gets old.

“This time was my fourth inauguration and I enjoyed it just as much as the first one. It is a great honor to represent my country at these important moments in U.S. history,” she told the Diplomatic Pouch. “Every time, the inauguration festivities are a very special experience for diplomats. The presidential inauguration is a great demonstration of U.S. democracy.”

After the swearing-in, the ambassadors are taken to Blair House for a luncheon. The State Department also generally arranges tickets for the ambassadors to attend an official inaugural ball, although they’re also free to go to any of the myriad other events to which they’re invited.

Embassies occasionally host events themselves, though not too often (see following story on Kenya’s celebration). A notable exception is the Canadian Embassy, which has capitalized on its prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue along the parade route. In 2009, the embassy invited hundreds of revelers to watch the inaugural parade at a Canadian-style tailgate party. The party was a hit.

This year, some 1,000 people came out for the tailgate, held in the courtyard of the six-story embassy located on Pennsylvania Avenue (VIP guests get to watch the parade from the top floor of the embassy). As the parade passes by, the tailgaters get to celebrate the American tradition in distinctly Canadian fashion, with Canada Dry ginger ale, Poutine (french fries topped with brown gravy and curd cheese) and Beaver Tails — not the animal kind, but rather fried dough in the shape of a beaver’s tail.

From left, Dr. Bruce Allen, an honorary consul for Liechtenstein, Ambassador of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche, and Shaista and Ray Mahmood — standing in front of an ice sculpture with the presidential seal — attend an inaugural celebration at Café Milano in Georgetown.

Over the years, various event organizers have tried to host diplomatic-themed balls and galas, but it’s difficult to get the city’s ambassadors together in one place. Many naturally wind up going to an official ball — after all, who wouldn’t want to catch a glimpse of the president?

This year, though, the 2013 Ambassadors Inaugural Ball got some strong diplomatic backing thanks to Ambassador Neil Parsan of Trinidad and Tobago and Ambassador Tebelelo Seretse of Botswana, both of whom helped to organize the first-time event (along with Robert S. Shumake, CEO of ShuFund Capital and an honorary consul general of Botswana).

They even took a novel diplomatic approach to promoting the ball — lending their voices to robo calls that tried to drum up ticket sales.

Whether the unusual tactic worked or not, the Ambassadors Ball had one big advantage: location. It was held at the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, next door to the official Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center, so in theory ambassadors could easily stop by both balls.

Only a handful of the more than 30 ambassadors on the host committee of the Ambassadors Ball made an appearance — among them were envoys from Panama and Liechtenstein, as well as Botswana and Trinidad and Tobago. But overall turnout was strong, with Miss USA Nana Meriwether in attendance and performances by DJ Biz Markie, award-winning African singer Lira, Johannesburg-based band Mi Casa, and Cape Verdean DJ Anané Vega.

Boris Tadic, former president of Serbia (2004-12), center, is surrounded by his advisor Jovan Ratkovic, left, and Ambassador of Serbia Vladimir Petrovic at the Café Milano inaugural celebration.

The Diplomatic Pouch ran into Liechtenstein’s long-time ambassador, Claudia Fritsche, at the Ambassadors Ball and later at Café Milano’s inaugural celebration, which was sponsored by FedEx Corp., RLJ Companies and Café Milano owner Franco Nuschese.

The well-known Georgetown eatery also drew ambassadors from Turkey and Serbia and media personalities like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Indeed, many inaugural veterans will tell you that the best parties are the more intimate, corporate-sponsored, invite-only events, as opposed to the jam-packed galas and balls.

For Fritsche, who’s been Liechtenstein’s envoy in Washington since 2002, she says all the festivities are a unique way to toast not only the U.S. president, but to celebrate with the people he represents.

“Participating in the side events, including the balls, allows the ambassadors to interact with Americans from all over the nation who have come to Washington for this special day,” Fritsche told us.

But she does have one key piece of advice: “Taking one’s high heels in a separate bag to the ball is a life saver, because you end up having to walk through multiple blocks of security to get to the entrance.”

Want some more inaugural tidbits?

Here is the 57th Presidential Inauguration by the numbers, according to the Presidential Inaugural Committee:

2,800 (est.): Applications submitted to the Joint Task Force–National Capital Region by groups requesting to march in the Inaugural Parade.

1,500: Number of portable toilets on the National Mall for the Jan. 31 ceremonial swearing-in.

54: Number of inauguration ceremonies, including this year’s celebration, held in Washington.

21: Height, in feet, of each of the five Jumbotrons that will be on the National Mall for Monday’s ceremonial swearing-in.

15: Number of consecutive inaugurals for which Charlie Brotman has announced the parade, including this year’s event.

7: Number of times the official Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday, including this year’s ceremony.

2: Number of times the public Inauguration date has fallen on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including this year’s celebration.

Front photo: White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert
President Barack Obama takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., right, in a public ceremony at the U.S. Capitol before thousands of people in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor for the Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.



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