Updated: Aug 27, 2021
Jan. 21, 1997
1997-01-21 Washington -- From the back roads of Arkansas to the brick townhouses of Georgetown, thousands of political Cinderellas thronged to Washington's inaugural balls last night, the arch-fantasy of socialites everywhere.
Mind you, not everyone was clear on the concept. One misguided brute announced to a local that he would attend the Inaugural Ball.
A black-tie event is to Washington what a barbecue is to Texas. This is a town of mass-produced formality, where every man owns at least one tuxedo and every woman two sequined gowns and three little black dresses.
An inaugural ballroom in Washington typically means a dark, cavernous amphitheater in one of the big hotels, its industrial- carpet floor littered with drink tickets and plastic swizzle sticks. Thousands elbow themselves to the front stage, hoping to glimpse the president and first lady when they chance to arrive. Those at the rear catch the drama on big-screen televisions.
The California ball was held in a room that had all the size -- and charm -- of a 747 aircraft hanger. People looked bored under the red, white and blue lights.
One anonymous Cinderella was disdainful of the nearby Arkansas party. "I have both my shoes," she sniffed, adding, "We all have nice black dresses -- over there, it's pink mermaid dresses and gold lame. It's not pretty."
HOMEY TOUCH OF GLUTTONY
Recall, too, that this was the second inauguration of Bill Clinton, a Baby Boomer known for adding a homey touch of gluttony to the glittering excesses of his presidential predecessors. Hence, not one, but 14 "official" inaugural balls along with dozens of unofficial ones reflecting every political and cultural persuasion, from gay and lesbian galas to the "Salute to Heroes" veteran's ball.
(Ball inflation's flight into double digits began with Eisenhower, the first president to have more than one inaugural ball. Kennedy more than doubled that to five. Reagan had 10 for his second term, Bush 11 for his first and only.)
One reason is money. The $31 million price for this inauguration came from private funds. Clinton's inaugural committee, attempting to skirt embarrassing reminders of White House fund-raising imbroglios, limited donations to $100. So the bulk had to come from ticket sales, including $150 tickets to the official inaugural balls. The more balls, the more money.
This year, the balls were scattered at nearly every large building in Washington, some more elegant than others, from the lofty marble halls of Union Station and the National Building Museum to the Washington Hilton and Omni Shoreham.
California, Alaska and Hawaii ballgoers got stuck at "Hall A" in the Washington Convention Center, a real glamour vacuum. Ballgoers from Arkansas, New Hampshire and Florida got similar treatment in halls "B" and "C."
A trumpet blast greeted Vice President and Tipper Gore as they arrived last night at the California party; they later were joined by the president and his wife, who were in the process of attempting to hit all 14 official balls. Attendees were drawn to the stage like metal to a magnet.
The vice president shouted, "Thank you California! We're all ready for the 21st century!" The Gores then danced to a Bob Weir song. For entertainment, the committee hired what it called America's most gifted performers, including the Doobie Brothers, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, Herbie Hancock and REO Speedwagon and many others, along with a couple of dozen big bands, rock bands and other musicians.
Bob Hattoy, a White House aide from California, said the gala was "a combination of New Year's Eve, a high school homecoming and a Willie Brown fund-raiser. Lots of forced fun with too many sequins."
SHUTTLES FOR THE MASSES
Wealthy and wise ballgoers hired limousines and taxis to transport themselves from one ball and reception to the next. For hoi polloi, however, the inaugural committee set up shuttles to move the masses to and fro.
The fashion pages of the Washington Post tried valiantly to set an elegant tone. "Some jaded Washingtonians have been known to haul out an old dress or a tuxedo on its last legs because they don't want to risk ruining an expensive new ensemble," wrote Robin Givhan before the big night. "Well, honey, if you can't afford to ruin it, you can't afford to own it. Clothes are meant to be worn, not guarded like ancient tapestries."
Most important, she added, "Stand up straight. Walk with grace. Mind your manners. If you don't have any, buy a book. Read it. Memorize it."
However, given that inaugural balls require tromping all over town half drunk on a frigid, taxi- less, chairless night, Washington's fashion edicts do permit ladies to forgo heels for slippers.
Givhan listed some definite don'ts, however, perhaps directed at those arriving from landlocked states: no campaign buttons, no feathers, "marabou, peacock or otherwise. You are a guest at an inaugural ball, not a model at the auto show."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead