This year’s activities will be scaled down, reflecting tough economic times. Bill Clinton attended a record 14 inaugural balls in 1997, George W. Bush visited nine in 2005. At his first inaugural in 2009, Obama attended 10 balls. This year he will visit only two, according to the Associated Press — the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball and the Inaugural Ball, both at the cavernous Washington Convention Center the night of the public inauguration. These are “official” balls and are by invitation only.
However, at least 35 other “unofficial” inaugural balls have been announced, most taking place in the days before the actual inauguration. They are open to the public and range from about $100 to $250 per person. Some are sponsored by state societies, Florida State Society among them, but anyone can stage them, so they espouse a variety of themes and causes. There are balls titled Disability and Pride, Blue Lights in the Ballroom and Rhythm and Blues Reloaded.
There’s even a ball for late-nighters. “Our late-night Chefs Ball allows guests coming from other galas and events to continue the celebration with us at Art and Soul [restaurant],” said chef Art Smith, who hosts the food event along with Wes Morton and five other celebrity chefs. All proceeds from the Jan. 19 event, priced at $75, go to charity.
Even if they don’t witness the inauguration itself, visitors to Washington can enjoy inaugural-related events, including historic exhibits.
In the Capitol Visitors Center’s Exhibition Hall are some inaugural-related exhibits. “My favorite is a photo of President Lincoln making his inaugural address in 1865 with an iron table in front of him,” said the Visitor Center’s Tom Fontana. “We have that table there.” Other inaugural exhibits may be in the Senate wing.
The venerable Willard Hotel, which has seen many inaugurals, has an exhibit of images and other presidential-related items in its gallery. “President Lincoln and his family stayed at the Willard for two weeks in 1861 before moving into the White House,” said the hotel’s Barbara Bahny-David. “His bill came to $773.75.” A copy of that bill is on view in the gallery.
The Willard has hosted many presidents and other dignitaries since 1853. President Grant popularized the word “lobbyist” while at the Willard, Julia Ward Howe wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic there, and President Coolidge stayed at the hotel until Warren Harding’s widow moved out of the White House. The hotel decorates its facade with flags and patriotic bunting during the inauguration period..
The Newseum will open a special exhibit on presidential campaigns, elections and inaugurations in mid-January. Called Every Four Years, it will run to Jan. 27. (The Newseum also has an excellent view of the inaugural parade, but admission for that day is already sold out.)
You can see gowns worn at inaugural balls by some presidential wives at the First Ladies exhibit in the National Museum of American History.
Portraits of America’s presidents are on view at the National Portrait Gallery, and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, will have special activities in honor of the inauguration Jan. 18-21.