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Inaugural balls will be less lavish

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Jan 20, 2009

Inaugural balls will be less lavish

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Jan 20, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: Even though he’s been going all day already, President Obama’s got an even longer night ahead of him. He’s going to drop in on 10 inaugural balls tonight. As in fancy, formal parties, right? And, in fact, inaugural balls used to be the real deal — great food, champagne, elegant attire.

But times have changed. Now you’re lucky to get cardboard chicken. Balls have been known to end with near riots at the coat check. And this year some have scaled back even more because of the economy. Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Most of us think of inaugural balls as grand affairs. Well, think again. Balls have been going downhill for years.

KIM SUNDY: The ball was a little disappointing — definitely was like being almost back at a school dance.

That wasn’t exactly what Kim Sundy had in mind when she went to a youth ball for President Clinton’s first inauguration.

SUNDY: When you watch balls and events on television, you always have this grandiose idea of “I’ll feel like Cinderella when I’m there. There’ll be tablecloths and all these things.”

Things like good food, candles and fine china. Instead, inaugural balls these days are like cattle calls. The food is crummy — sometimes just snacks. There’s a cash bar — wine and beer served in plastic cups.

It wasn’t always this way. Bring in that music again.

Dolly Madison hosted the first inaugural ball in 1809. She offered champagne and “Charlotte Chantilly.” At James Buchanan’s inaugural ball in 1857, they served 400 gallons of oysters, and 1,200 quarts of ice cream.

More than 100 years later, Jimmy Carter became one of the first presidents to tone things down. The Georgia peanut farmer served peanuts at his inaugural balls. He tried to limit ticket prices to $25.

Allen Lichtman is a presidential historian at American University.

ALLEN LICHTMAN: This was very consciously part of a strategy on the part of Jimmy Carter to suggest, Well, this isn’t going to be a presidency of the rich and the privileged. This is going to be a presidency of the ordinary folks.

President Obama has tried to craft a similar, populist image. Plus, he doesn’t want to look too ostentatious in a recession.

You would think that’s bad news for Washington caterers. But the kitchen at Design Cuisine is buzzing. They’re catering 30 inaugural events, instead of a few more expensive ones.

Co-owner Bill Homan says party hosts are avoiding things like caviar, which is tasty but in poor taste during a recession. But he says that hasn’t affected his bottom line.

BILL HOMAN: I think it’s not necessarily spending less money. I think they’re just changing what they’re ordering. The foods we’re doing are much more comfort foods. You know, sliced hams and turkeys and things like that, which don’t really read: Expensive.

That’s sure to please the most honored guest at these balls — the new president. After all, he’s the reason people put up with the crowds and bad food. They just want to catch a glimpse of Obama. If he’s happy, they are, too.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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