Call it Washington's version of the Academy Awards, except that a presidential inauguration occurs only once every four years - and now extends to four days.
A local wit once described Washington as Hollywood for ugly people. But the beautiful people have nothing on the monumental sweep of official Washington for throwing a party.
From the lens of the television cameras - the way most of the world will see the Inauguration - the marble city may never look more beautiful. The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, where President Grant coined the term "lobbyist," has fitted each of its windows facing the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue with American flags. The massive Corinthian columns in the National Building Museum, freshly faux-marble painted, are still the classic backdrop for a presidential ball.
But out of camera range are signs that this inauguration - the first since 9/11 - is different: the check points, high fences, Jersey barriers, anti-aircraft guns on the lawn of the Capitol, the blocked-off streets, and severely restricted access to all events including the parade.
"There is true frustration and anger over the fortification in our city," says Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save the Mall. "I'm staying away from downtown D.C. as much as possible. It's too distressing."
For Washingtonians, a presidential inauguration is the biggest party of the year, but one to which few who live here will be invited. Only 9 percent of voters in the nation's capital voted for President Bush, compared with 85 percent for President Clinton in his second term, and invitations to the most glamorous events are limited mainly to big donors. (The Commander-in-Chief Ball, for military personnel who served in Afghanistan or Iraq and their families, is a notable exception. Tickets are free with a Pentagon invitation.)
For those not on official invite lists, there's always the option of joining or hosting one of some 32,000 house parties for President Bush on Jan. 20. Party kits are available on the GOP.com website, which urges activists to bring family, friends, and the president's supporters together on Inauguration Day.
For the uninvited in the capital, there are also other options. Antiwar protesters are setting up their own bleachers on Pennsylvania Avenue. Some locals are planning their own unofficial parties.
With nine official balls, candlelight dinners, concerts, and an expected $44 million in spending, the 55th inauguration in Washington is on track to be the most opulent ever - despite a war in Iraq and a deepening natural disaster in Asia.
Washington's newest luxury hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, is preparing for a "three-day Inaugural feeding frenzy," including 400 pounds of lobster, 16,000 pieces of shrimp, and 250 dozen "Laura Bush Cowboy" cookies.
Since the Ritz-Carlton offered the first high-end inauguration package in 1989, the competition has been fierce for the over-the-top inaugural dollar. The Jefferson Hotel topped out this year with a $1 million, five-day package, featuring private jet, butler, and gala outfitting at Neiman Marcus. It attracted "lots of interest," but no takers. The comparatively bargain-rate $200,500 "presidential privilege package" at the Oriental, also with butler, fared no better. Both hotels rented out their presidential suites at undisclosed rates.
In 1945, wartime President Roosevelt wanted a scaled-down celebration for his fourth inaugural. Congress had appropriated $20,000 for the event; the White House only spent $2,000. He cancelled the parade and the ball and held his swearing in at the White House, followed by a cold lunch of chicken salad, rolls without butter, and unfrosted pound cake.
"While his health also played into it, he didn't think in time of war you should have a lavish party in Washington. It was an entirely different culture then," says Paul Boller, professor emeritus at Texas Christian University and author of a 2001 book, "Presidential Inaugurations."
Critics challenge President Bush for not following the lead of other wartime presidents and scaling down the $40 million celebrations. "Especially in a time of war, it seems undignified," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "It speaks volumes about the preoccupation with status in society."
There are some indications that people are nonetheless toning down the glitz this year. The Bushes aren't the Reagans. The lights-out-by-10 p.m. president avoided D.C. night life, even before 9/11. "This is the first administration in my memory that has not played a social role in Washington. This president just doesn't go out, and there have been very few social events at the White House," says Chuck Conconi, editor-at-large of the Washingtonian magazine, who has covered the social scene in Washington for over 30 years.
Moreover, the first lady's style, which helps set the tone for the social life of administration, is understated. At Andre Chreky spa the mood is decidedly not to "glam it up," says co-owner Serena Chreky. "We used to order in jewelry for hair at Inaugurations. This year, there's been no demand for it," she says. "There's a respectful attitude toward the tsunami victims and the war in Iraq."
Once a one-day event, the inauguration this year spans at least four days - the new minimum for reservations in the capital's hotels this week. Georges de Paris, tailor to Washington's power elite, set aside his soft herringbones and tweeds to fix up a sequined gown in time for inauguration week. An out-of-town client (who didn't get the memo on un-glam) wanted to replace the red, white, and blue sequins around the neckline with yellow, a $2,000 alteration that kept him stitching in his 14th Street shop past 1 a.m. last week. "She told me it was for the [yellow rose] of Texas," he says as he embroiders initials into a tuxedo for a top GOP official. Leaping up from his bench, he goes to a full length mirror to demonstrate how the client, in dress cowboy boots, tested out the Texas two-step, with kick, in the newly altered gown. He's never seen that, either.