2013 Presidential Inaugural Ball: Still the hottest ticket in town

For those lucky enough to score an invite, it is an exclusive party

If you had to be anyone going to the upcoming inaugural festivities, it perhaps would be best to be Clifford Levine.

A genial, well-connected Squirrel Hill lawyer, Democratic Party fundraiser and Electoral College member, Mr. Levine also served on the Obama campaign's national finance committee, and his hard work means he'll be attending some of the most exclusive parties in town later this week, in a year when the number of "official" inaugural balls have dropped from 10 to two.

Never mind. While only 800,000 or so attendees are expected this year -- as opposed to 1.8 million in 2008 -- the jockeying for tickets to official and unofficial events has reached a fever pitch. Scalpers are having a field day: As of Friday, one independent ticket broker agency, www.greatseats.com, was selling $60 tickets to the main inaugural ball for $1,649, and tickets to the Pennsylvania Society gala at the Ritz-Carlton were going for $595 each.

Mr. Levine -- known in political parlance as a "bundler," someone who collects individual contributions for an election campaign -- is going to be in the thick of it.

"It's very exciting," said Mr. Levine, who joined attorney Lazar Palnick of Highland Park in raising more than $1 million each for the president's campaign. As a result, they're being invited to events gratis, as a thank-you from the Obama campaign. "People are still on a cloud for what we just did, and it'll be great to celebrate with other members of the team, especially all the young people who worked so hard."

President Barack Obama is scheduled to take the oath of office on Monday, January 21, at noon. But it's for ceremonial purposes only. He will already have been sworn in privately 24 hours before, on January 20, a date required by the Constitution.

Most presidents are privately sworn in a few hours before the inaugural ceremony, so the transition of power goes smoothly, but this year January 20 falls on a Sunday, so the president will be offiically sworn in then.

Since formal inaugurals can't be held on Sundays, Mr. Obama's public ceremony will take place on January 21, Martin Luther King's birthday, a federal holiday.

Mr. Obama's second inaugural might end up being a little more subdued than the first in 2008, which was considered particularly historic given that he was the first black candidate to be elected president.

"I'm not hearing so much from people out of town. There's just not the same fervor or demand this time," said Bob Witeck, an LGBT activist and corporate consultant. "Still, the one thing that's so great is that you do see old friends from around the country who come back. D.C. just has that glue about it."

Still, the alchemy of a second inaugural is subtly different from the first, "when the person is moving from being a politician to being the representative of the nation, so there's this sense of elevation about the whole thing," said Harry Rubenstein, a curator at The Smithsonian and an expert on inaugural history.

If you're re-elected, fine -- but "once you've been elevated, you've been elevated."

Nonetheless, Mr. Levine and Mr. Palnick will be scaling fairly high altitudes during the upcoming weekend: a Friday morning brunch at the White House and a private candlelight dinner next Sunday at the National Buildings Museum -- the former Pension Building, perhaps the most beautiful space in Washington -- with Mr. Obama in attendance.

On Jan. 21, Mr. Levine and Mr. Palnick, with their wives Roseanne and Susanne, will attend one of only two official inaugural balls at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center, financed with donated funds by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

A children's concert for military families also will be held next Sunday.

But why only two balls?

The decision to have only two official balls makes sense from a logistical and security standpoint, said Mr. Levine, noting that the Obamas could stay only for short periods of time at each ball last time.

"This way, the attendees get more quality time with the president," he said.

"I don't have the colonel's secret recipe for exact reason why," said Jim Burn, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, but fewer balls mean a lesser security burden for police and "represent a very businesslike approach on the part of the president, given the tough economy."

Unlike last time, Mr. Obama is soliciting contributions during this inaugural from big donors, who will be paying up to $1 million for entry. This has prompted some critics to note that he has abandoned his pledge against paying for access during the 2008 campaign.

It didn't help when the $60 tickets were sold out after being mistakenly put online by TicketMaster.com before they were officially on sale, prompting angry posts on the Inaugural Committee's Facebook page. The other official party -- "The Commander in Chief's Ball" -- is for members of the Armed Forces, a tradition started by President George W. Bush for members of the Armed Forces, who are invited for free, with troops abroad partying via video.

Then there are all the other parties -- a partial list is available at www.demlist.com/calendar_inaug.php -- reflecting all sorts of different issues and interest groups who just want to have a good time.

There's the African Diaspora Ball, the Black Tie and Boots Ball hosted by the Texas Society, the Rhythm Blues Reloaded Inaugural Ball and the National Association of Minority Contractors Ball, to name a few.

The word "ball" is loaded with elitist connotations -- Jimmy Carter refused to use the word on his invitations, calling them inaugural "parties." They are events where the men wear black tie and the women wear gowns and everyone waltzes. That might happen this time, but more and more, presidential inaugural balls are becoming opportunities for social and business networking as opposed to doing the fox trot.

Media companies are among the bigger ball-givers, "opportunities to hoist their brand," Mr. Witeck said, fondly recalling the Huffington Post's ball in 2008 at the Newseum -- where he mingled with the likes of Sting and Ben Affleck.

Unlike political conventions, inaugural parties are supposed to be less partisan. Juleanna Glover, a prominent Washington hostess during George W. Bush's presidency, said she will attend a lot of functions, even though she's a Republican. As a member of The Ashcroft Group, a lobbying firm, she advises major corporate clients, so she will be out and about, "although the sense of optimism we had about the next four years really isn't there," she said.

"Inaugural parties are these wonderful mashups, all about celebrating democracy and national unity and, also, some partisan gloating, but there are these big public events that everyone is invited to," said Mr. Rubenstein, the Smithsonian curator.

Some second inaugural parties have been grander than the first, he noted. When Thomas Jefferson was first elected president, he just walked back to his boarding house after the ceremony, only to discover that all the seats at the communal dining table were occupied. Not wishing to be undemocratic, he retired to his room without eating.

The second time, he hosted a reception at the White House that was open to the public. And in some ways, President Bill Clinton's second inaugural was more elaborate than the first, with a record 14 balls -- up from 11 four years earlier -- and a week-long series of events leading to the swearing-in.

Let's just hope that these two balls don't end up the way President James Polk's did. He hosted one $10 ball for the diplomats and wealthy people and a $2 ball for the rest.

"They mixed up the invitations, so all the newspapers were full of stories about the diplomat's wife dancing with her gardener," Mr. Rubenstein said.

Sounds a lot more fun than being jammed into a convention center with 10,000 other Democratic activists texting pictures from their cell phones.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. First Published January 13, 2013 5:00 AM


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