In the land of fairy tales and Washington, D.C. -- 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 United States and the first lady. Over the years, the styles have changed -- John F. Kennedy in white tie and tails, or Bill Clinton playing the saxophone -- 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. And that's if you got there before a fire marshal declared the place dangerously overcrowded. (It has happened.)
And let's dispense with the grand notion of the inaugural ball. 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. If anything, they sound more fun -- the Hip Hop Inaugural Ball -- and quirkier. (The Lincoln 2.0 Ball at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday aims to channel the "Victorian essence of Lincoln's second inaugural ball," which took place in the same building.)
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 are obligated to appear. Season after season, whether there are five (Kennedy's) or 14 (Clinton's second inaugural), they show up. But do the math: Their stay at each ball is, by necessity, fleeting -- a matter of minutes. They walk onstage, they wave hello, the president says something moderately funny, maybe they dance briefly, then 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.
The Obamas' first stop of the night is to be the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, a different iteration from the other galas in that it offers lower-priced and free tickets. A portion of the tickets has been set aside for D.C. residents. The committee has put much public emphasis on the more inclusive (or, at least, less exclusive) nature of this ball, announcing that there will be webcasting and that it will be televised on ABC. That may pay off for the attendees -- the Obamas may stay longer.
"There may be more of a time commitment for the Neighborhood Ball because that's going to be broadcast," said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Tickets to the other balls are elusive unless you know someone connected to the inaugural committee or state officials helping to plan them. And for those who made sizable contributions to underwriting the inauguration, "one of the benefits is a ticket," Douglass said. Like any ball worth its weight in fairy dust, you technically have to be invited. In most cases, you still pay for the ticket, and the base price for many is $150. (The ball in honor of military personnel and their families is free.)
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? look. I should know. I experienced it firsthand and chronicled others going through it.
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?' "
No, Tammy, you can't sit down -- that is, unless you have bought a box on the periphery of the ballroom.
That's what I wrote in the Washington Post. It was my third turn reporting on inaugural balls for the Post's Style section. By then I knew all about disappointment. That night 20 years ago, it was my job to stay through the arrival of the president, but not all of the guests did. Tammy from New Orleans gave up when Bush hadn't arrived by 11:30 p.m. That year, according to our reporting, the new president attended 11 balls. But maybe it was more. Even Bush wasn't sure of his tally when he took the stage of the ball where I was stationed -- "our 13th or 14th event," he told us.