President Barack Obama’s first inaugural festivities stretched over five days. Donald Trump is spending barely three on his.
Bill Clinton hit 14 official balls on the day he was sworn in. Trump plans appearances at three.
And while other presidents have staged parades that lasted more than four hours, Trump’s trip along Pennsylvania Avenue is expected to clock in at 90 minutes – making it among the shortest on record.
In a word, the 45th president’s inaugural activities will be “workmanlike,” said Boris Epshteyn, communications director for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a pop-up staff of about 350 people scrambling to put together the proceedings from the second floor of a nondescript government building just south of the Mall.
The notion of a relatively low-key inaugural bereft of many A-list entertainers may come as a surprise, given the president-elect’s flair for showmanship and his credentials as a reality TV star. But Epshteyn said Trump settled on a less flashy approach, including keeping the ticket prices for the inaugural balls at $50 apiece so that working-class Americans who helped fuel Trump’s surprise victory can take part.
Organizers are also expecting an unusually high number of protesters, given how divisive Trump’s victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was. And as of Monday afternoon, nearly three dozen Democratic lawmakers had said they plan to skip the festivities, after revelations of Russia’s alleged interference in the election and Trump’s rebuke of civil rights icon John Lewis on Saturday.
“These inaugurations tend to reflect the character, personality and aspirations of the person preparing to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “It would be un-Trumpian for there not to be some spectacle.”
Early on, there was talk of something much flashier. Trump reportedly huddled with Mark Burnett, producer of his former hit show, “The Apprentice,” about parading down Fifth Avenue in New York where Trump Tower is located, then traveling by helicopter to Washington with the nation glued to TV screens. Others suggested other flourishes, such as a grand unfurling of ceremonial flags as Trump passes by his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue during the parade.
Past presidents have sought to set a tone for their presidency with their inaugurations. John F. Kennedy’s was a high point of style and elegance, a declaration that glamour had returned after the plain-Jane years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, pressed the notion of a “people’s inauguration,” noting at one point that the new first lady had opted to wear the same blue satin gown she had at his gubernatorial inauguration in Georgia six years earlier.
Ronald Reagan amped up the glamour and pizazz. Bill Clinton embraced his baby boomer status, throwing a free concert.
Building on his campaign theme of “hope and change,” Obama’s first inauguration set a record for attendance, as officials open the full length of Mall for the swearing-in ceremony.
At his news conference last week, Trump promised an inauguration that would be “very, very special, very beautiful,” and predicted “massive crowds.”
The signals are mixed. Many of the unofficial parties being thrown by state delegations and other entities sold out weeks ago. Hotel bookings appear to be on pace with Obama’s 2013 inauguration (but shy of 2009), according to Robin McClain, vice president of Destination D.C.
Meanwhile, city officials have indicated that far more charter buses have sought parking permits in the city’s biggest lot on Saturday, when a protest Women’s March on Washington is scheduled, than for the inauguration the day before.
Thomas Barrack, an international financier who is leading Trump’s inaugural committee, told reporters last week that the president-elect is seeking to avoid a “circuslike atmosphere” with his festivities.
One thing the Trump inaugural committee has done particularly well is raise money. The committee says it has brought in more than $90 million in private money for the festivities, far more than the $53 million that Obama raised in 2009 for his first inauguration. Contributions were solicited through personal outreach to corporations and wealthy donors, who were asked to give between $25,000 and $1 million, with tailored rewards for each level.
Roy Bailey, a Texas financier who is co-chairing the fundraising efforts, said a substantial number gave at the highest tier, shelling out $1 million or more. At that level, donors will get special perks during the inauguration weekend, including eight tickets to a “candlelight dinner” that will feature “special appearances” by Trump and his wife, Melania, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, according to donor brochure obtained by The Washington Post.
Still, it’s unclear how the inaugural committee will spend all it’s taken in.
“With a pared-down inaugural, I don’t know what they could possibly use $90 million on,” said Steve Kerrigan, chief executive officer of Obama’s inaugural committee in 2013 and chief of staff of the committee in 2009.
A significant share of the cost of festivities – including the swearing-in and parade – are covered by Congress and the military. Balls and other extras have traditionally been underwritten by private funds.
The extras include the likes of hundreds of thermal blankets emblazoned with the presidential seal and the date of Trump’s inauguration, ordered for distribution to ambassadors and those on the dais at the swearing-in ceremony. It’s unclear how much use the blankets will get: A high in the 50s is predicted for Friday.
Trump aides have said little about what he will say in his remarks after being sworn in. It’s a speech that could largely set the tone for a president who is entering office with historically low approval ratings. Late last month, Trump told several visitors to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that he is looking to both Reagan and Kennedy for inspiration.
Nearly 250,000 tickets are being distributed for the swearing-in ceremony by members of Congress, while the Mall can accommodate hundreds of thousands more spectators.
After a luncheon at the Capitol, Trump is scheduled to take part in a traditional inaugural parade – albeit a shorter one than usual.
The participants announced so far include an array of high school and college marching bands and bands from all branches of the military. But the short scheduled time and lack of more hoopla has surprised some observers, including Charlie Brotman, who has served as the announcer at every inaugural parade since Eisenhower’s second one in 1957. Brotman, 89, has been relieved of his announcer duties this year despite continued interest in serving.
“The parade is actually an extension of the president’s personality,” Brotman said, saying he thought Trump might have “super-duper bands and marching units.”
“I thought it would be a spectacular, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” he said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Karen Tumulty