Monday, December 8, 2008

Washington Social Diary

The A+ seats are up on the inaugural platform, flanking the spot where Barack Obama and Joe Biden will take the oath of office.
Countdown to an Inauguration in Dire Times
By Carol Joynt

There’s no doubt about it, Washington is the most exciting place to be right now. A change is coming, presumed to be a big change, and while at the moment most of the symbols of change are televised Cabinet announcements out of Chicago, there is tangible anticipation at street level here in the capital city. Dare I say it, but even among some Republicans there is a curiosity and restrained optimism about what Barack Obama could bring to the job of running the country. Given the harrowing national and global economies, and with the U.S. in two wars, they want to see him succeed – at least in the near term. Four years from now is another matter.

The message is clear: an inauguration is coming to town.
Here in Washington the most obvious signs that an inauguration is coming to town are that both the Capitol and White House have become construction sites. Regardless of partisan politics, Washington loves this part of the process, as each day the swearing-in platform at the Capitol and the parade review stand outside the White House take more shape.

Gossip is another sign. As in who’s the new Inner Circle, who’s having inaugural parties, who’s running the guest lists, who can score “A” tickets for the swearing in? In other words, who has the power? There are some sour grapes, too. One senator’s wife planted herself at the hair salon and announced to everyone in earshot what an awful choice Obama made in nominating Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. But she can be forgiven -- her husband was a candidate for the job.

There’s talk, too, of Michelle Obama. She’s expected to be a visible presence in the city, especially with two young daughters at the Sidwell Friends School. The school is serious about academics and sports, but it’s also a social school, even if with only a small “S”. The parents are involved. People expect the new First Lady to be an activist parent at Sidwell. The older daughter, Malia, will go to the middle school, which is in the heart of the northwest neighborhood that is legendary Democratic turf, Cleveland Park. With even discreet security escort, the White House is five minutes from the school’s front door. The younger daughter, Sasha, will trek almost nine miles to Sidwell’s lower school in suburban Bethesda.
A construction worker guides his cherry picker near the spot where the world's attention will focus on January 20.
Of course, when not talking about Michelle Obama as parent, the chatter is about the tone of her White House in dire times; how she’ll entertain and who she’ll entertain and whether both Obamas, as a couple, will get outside the White House gates and be part of the city.

George and Barbara Bush were the last Presidential couple to be actively social. They loved to have friends in, and to go out to restaurants. The rest of the world may not care about this aspect of the Presidency, but for Washington it makes a difference.
The view from the Capitol to the Mall, which will be open to the public as far as the eye can see. On January 20 this view will be a sea of people.
Estimates are that between 1.4 and 4 million people will pack the mall on Inauguration day.
Not surprisingly, in the run up to January 20 it is also about jobs. They won’t alter the unemployment rate, but government jobs are the spoils of victory and Democrats are feasting.

Within days of the election, the popular reading was the “Plum Book.” It’s official title is “The United States Government: Policy and Supporting Positions,” but within its 209 pages is listed every federal job to be vacated by the Bush administration and filled by the Obama team. How many jobs is that? Oh, about 8,000. You can buy the book from The Government Printing Office or online. But as you buff up your resume remember this: it’s a waste of time unless you know someone, or know someone who knows someone.
The president's inaugural parade reviewing stand is under construction in front of the White House. A path will be built over the lawn so the First Family and their guests can walk back and forth from the mansion.
A closer view of the president's parade review stand. When it's done it will be enclosed, carpeted and heated.
To describe the job hierarchy, I went to an expert, my sister-in-law, Martha Joynt Kumar, a Presidency scholar who has a wealth of knowledge about the science of transitions.

“While there are thousands of jobs, most of them are not ones they will focus on until several months into the administration. A new administration focuses on the PAS positions, presidential appointees who require Senate confirmation.  There are approximately 1,200 of them.  (Several hundred are ambassadors, almost two-thirds are career people, US marshals, and US attorneys).
Directly across from the president's parade viewing stand is an even larger platform that will serve TV cameras and photographers. Down the way on the right is Blair House.
That leaves you with 400-500 people who form the core of policy people at the Cabinet Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and Under Secretary levels.  They are the people a new President focuses on because they drive policy.  Plus the White House staff.  They do not need Senate confirmation so they are in a separate category.  There the President focuses on the top ten or so and then lets the Chief of Staff do most of the picking and organizing.”

So if you know the new Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, you have a shot.
The morning of the Inauguration, the Obamas will likely walk across the street from Blair House to the White House for tea with President and Mrs. Bush before the drive to the Capitol. When the Obamas return to the White House later their personal goods will have been moved in and unpacked.
A plaque honoring Francis Preston Blair, whose home became the official "President's Guest House" in 1942. Traditionally it is where the world's leaders stay when on a state visit to Washington.
While the President and First Lady will get packed up and moved to Texas, not all Bush people will leave town. What gives Washington its societal balance is the numbers of ex-administration people, president after president, who put down roots here and become the out-of-power court, warming seats at law firms, think tanks and on talk shows as they wait for another grab at the keys to the kingdom. It may be hard to believe right now, but as one day in the future there will be a resurgent economy, there will also be a revived Republican party. Or so Republican friends tell me.

The front of the presidential "guest house," Blair House, where Barack Obama and his family, in the tradition of all presidents-elect, will spend the night on the eve of the inauguration.
After the swearing-in, George and Laura Bush will take a helicopter from the Capitol to Andrews Air Force Base and the flight out of town. Following tradition, the Obamas and their guests will walk only a few steps into the Capitol’s Statuary Hall for a celebration lunch with members of Congress, then the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House reviewing stand.

What you won’t see is the controlled frenzy behind the scenes as movers crate and remove the Bushes’ belongings and roll in and unpack the Obama’s belongings in the family living quarters on the mansion’s second floor. This major but relatively seamless undertaking happens during the few hours of the inauguration. In fact, the Oval Office is stripped down, repainted and re-furnished between the time George Bush walks out for the last time and Barack Obama walks in for the first time.

That evening it’s the balls. There are many, many balls, some official and some unofficial. Some are okay, with a faint hint of glamour, but many are cheesy with cash bars, bright lights and bad bands. These are not the kinds of balls where Henry Higgins would take Eliza Doolittle for a social roll out. Some of the unofficial balls – meaning sponsored by states, groups, corporations, and foundations - are happening a night or two before the inauguration as well as inauguration night. The official inaugural balls, planned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, have not yet been announced, but they are the balls where the new President and First Lady typically show up for a quick stage appearance and dance.
A welcoming sign in a window on Pennsylvania Avenue less than a block from the White House.
If you’ve never been to an official inaugural ball, you should try to go, if for no other reason than to say you’ve been and to have the historic ticket for framing. If you don’t yet have a ticket and want one, start with the offices of your members of Congress, your local democratic party, or a well-connected concierge at one of the better hotels. Failing that, go online. Be prepared to pay. Some of the unofficial balls are as high as $1,000 a ticket.

As for the hotels (see NYSD 1.24.08), well, it would be best if you already have your room booked. The town has gone crazy in this regard. Four night minimums, rooms costing upwards of $900 a night. The word is that the top hotels are booked (but I say bug ‘em, because cancellations happen). There are countless stories about people renting their homes or guest rooms, or dorm rooms. I have a friend two blocks over who is offering his handsome Georgetown townhouse for $20,000, and I assume that’s for more than the one night. But you get to look across the street at the manse of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. That makes it worth it, right?
The inaugural preparations do not interupt the routine business of protestors who show up daily at the White House.
It’s not too soon to book restaurants, either. If you can’t get into your top choice for an 8 p.m. seating, try 3 a.m. The city council voted to let the city’s bars stay open until 5 a.m. and the restaurants to remain open 24 hours. In other words, Washington will not close. It will be Mardi Gras.

Just remember this sage advice from a veteran of many inaugurations. The event is in January. It could be lovely, but it could be bitter cold, too. It could snow. It could rain. Kennedy’s, famously, was the morning after a blizzard. Reagan’s second inauguration was so cold it had to be moved into the Rotunda; the parade was performed indoors. Clinton’s first was beautiful. It poured cold rain on George W. Bush the first time he took the Oath of Office. Mother Nature must be respected.
The construction site that is necessary for the inaugural preparations outside the White House.
Bring appropriate clothing. And though you may have a car and driver booked don’t assume there will be easy access to that car. Gridlock is more than possible. Estimates put the inauguration crowd at between 1.4 and 4 million. (The city’s population is not even 600,000).

How do most Washington residents approach all the excitement? Mary Kay Blake, a top executive at the Newseum, has her finger on the pulse.

She sent this email: There seem to be two schools of thought around town on this: This is going to be the biggest thing ever and I have to be part of it. This is going to be the biggest thing ever and I want no part of it.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.