Behind the Scenes at the Inauguration
Do you enjoy hearing about what goes on behind the scenes at monumental events? The count down to the culmination of one of the most historical events our country ever experiences can now be counted in hours and minutes. I find myself wondering about the details and preparation that hundreds of government employees must oversee, and the protocol to which they must assiduously adhere.
As we watch from the comfort of our homes, offices, bars, restaurants, or Time Square on Tuesday, we will witness the pomp and circumstance of an immense power as it changes hands. Leaders of the free world don’t make their peaceful and orderly transitions without a lot of help from unheralded civil servants. I found the following article lengthy but well worth the read. I hope you will too.
Following: Article written by Jessica Leeder from Saturday’s Globe and Mail
January 16, 2009 at 10:00 PM EST
Legally, it will take just a few dozen words on Tuesday to make Barack Obama the 44th U.S. president. But in fact the day requires a dizzying array of protocols, marching bands, moving vans, painters, cooks, police, celebs and military aides. And with four million people coming, it’s sure to be the biggest ever.
Jan. 20, 2009: 4 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The most massively programmed day in each American presidency begins hours before sunrise, behind doors in the White House that have never been opened to the public.
All over the mansion, in little-used closets and cramped dressing rooms, much of the permanent White House staff — butlers and maids, chefs and ushers, gardeners and florists, carpenters and electricians — steals naps on roll-away beds and folding cots, a short break from preparing food and readying guest rooms in the frenetic lead-up to Inauguration Day.
Between 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning, they rouse themselves and climb back into their uniforms. Only 12 hours remain to gently shutter one chapter of history at the famed Pennsylvania Avenue address and — in a flurry of moving trucks, painting and unpacking — to set the stage, literally, for the next.
This Tuesday marks the 44th enactment of this intricate dance, going back to George Washington taking his oath in 1789. At noon on Jan. 20, Barack Hussein Obama assumes the helm of a nation consumed by worry about its tattered economy, but star-struck by its 47-year-old president-elect and his family.
While the ceremonies and protocols won’t be much changed, symbolically the inauguration of the first African-American president marks a new era.
“This is the most important inauguration of a president since the very first,” says Morris L. Reid, a Washington political consultant who helped run both inaugural celebrations for the last Democratic Party president, Bill Clinton.
“There’s only going to be one more ‘first’ in American history when it comes to the presidents. We had our first president. Now we have our first minority president. We’ll have one more, which will be the first woman president. And that will be a big deal too.”
For the city of Washington, this “first” is a very big deal indeed. It is expected to be the most-watched oath-taking in U.S. history: Four million people — almost four times the number at the largest previous inauguration, Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965 — are expected to flood the city. That’s in spite of near-impossible travel conditions that include sold-out hotels, 24-hour closing (beginning at 2 a.m.) of the bridges that link the city to suburban areas in Virginia and Maryland, and an almost impermeable ring of security and barricades protecting the downtown core.
“You never have four million Americans who are just going to show up, just to say they were there,” Mr. Reid says, sounding incredulous.
The day will have a similar feeling, he predicts, to the day Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Coincidentally, the annual holiday in honour of Dr. King falls on the day before Mr. Obama’s inauguration.)
“It’s one of those moments. People want to be a part of history,” Mr. Reid says.
6 a.m.: Security sweeps
Most people, however, won’t be able to start taking up those places in history until shortly before sunup on Tuesday. Even as the White House staff gears up for the day, the surrounding streets will have the feel of a ghost town.
An unprecedented swath of Washington around the White House and Blair House — the 70,000-square-foot guest house where Mr. Obama and his family are currently staying — is being locked down that morning. No one is permitted outdoors except for the army of law-enforcement agents assigned by the Secret Service to prowl that sprawling “hot zone” for security threats.
That means no predawn dog walks or runs for zone residents — even for Mr. Obama, who is known for his early-morning workouts — until the security sweeps are complete at around 7 a.m. (all times given are approximate).
“This is the first time the city has been so closed down,” says Tom Locke, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation assistant director who now works as a security consultant in Washington. He says his former colleagues at the bureau are “very concerned for the president-elect’s safety. There have been more threats against Obama since he began campaigning than in all eight years of the Bush White House.”
The Secret Service, tasked with protecting the president, is co-ordinating an onslaught of law-enforcement officials. While the service won’t divulge how many agents will be required, Mr. Locke says it could easily surpass 10,000.
“The eyes of the world will be focused on the United States,” he says. “It would be a real coup for a terrorist or terrorists to cause an incident.”
Officials are equally worried about homegrown threats from Americans angry over the election of a black president. But Mr. Obama is unlikely to be briefed about any dangers that morning unless something particularly alarming arises.
“You can’t bother the president with the number of threats that come in daily,” Mr. Locke says, then adds: “If he does nothing else, he needs to listen to the Secret Service.”
The main advice there seems to be caution: Most incoming presidents hold some sort of prayer service on the morning of Inauguration Day, but Mr. Obama has scheduled his for the next morning at the National Cathedral. His team has been generally tight-lipped about what the Obama family will do in the first few hours of the day. They may choose to remain in the privacy of Blair House, which boasts 35 bathrooms as well as an exercise room, hair salon, dry cleaner and flower shop.
“I can’t imagine how Barack will be feeling,” says Mr. Reid, who met Mr. Obama several times over the course of his campaign. “Imagine waking up and thinking, ‘Today I become the leader of the free world.’ Only 43 other people in the world know how he feels. And none of them really know how he feels.”
9 a.m.: Final briefing
The one man in Washington who is closest to being able to empathize with Mr. Obama will wake on Tuesday morning, surely, feeling a mix of melancholy and relief. As per White House protocol, staff will afford George W. Bush the usual presidential treatment until the moment he crosses the threshold for the final time on his way to the Capitol for Mr. Obama’s inauguration. But insiders say the morning will feel anything but typical.
One of the choices an outgoing president may make is to convene staff in the Oval Office for a final, if mostly symbolic, morning briefing, says Ken Duberstein, a close confidant and former chief of staff for the late president Ronald Reagan. He tells the story of being asked to meet Mr. Reagan at 9 o’clock on the morning of Jan. 20, 1989, for a last briefing along with three other top advisers, including General Colin Powell, then national security adviser.
“When he walked into the Oval Office from the famous walkway called the Colonnade,” Mr. Duberstein recalls, Mr. Reagan “was startled to see that the Oval Office had been stripped bare.” A moving crew had taken out all of his personal items and furniture, including the famous presidential rug, and not yet moved in the furnishings for the incoming president, George Herbert Walker Bush.
“The president looked at Gen. Powell and me and reached into his pocket,” Mr. Duberstein says, patting his right pants pocket, “and said, ‘Here, fellas, I don’t need this any more.’” In Mr. Reagan’s outstretched hand was the card bearing the codes that presidents alone carry, in case the need arises to launch nuclear systems.
“We both said, ‘No, Mr. President! It’ll be deactivated at noon! Put it back in your pocket!’
“That’s when you knew that the presidency was over.”
10 a.m.: Coffee and tea
Whether or not Mr. Bush decides to hold a morning briefing, there will be a stark indication within the hour that his time in office has run out, when Mr. Obama’s motorcade delivers the incoming first family and their most senior advisers for the traditional Inauguration Day coffee-and-tea service.
The Bushes, according to protocol, will greet the Obama clan in the Grand Foyer (the fabled space that annually houses the White House Christmas tree) and lead them into the Blue Room overlooking the South Lawn.
“You stand around very awkwardly for half an hour,” Mr. Duberstein recalls. “One’s about to leave, one’s about to come. It is an awkward, emotional, formal and important day of transition in the life of our country.”
This year, the fact that the Bushes have already received the president-elect and his wife at the White House — the first time was a mere six days after the November election — should help mitigate that awkwardness.
During that first visit, the Obamas were given a tour of the White House, including the private quarters that will become their family refuge. They also were introduced to the chief usher, a fixture at the White House who is in charge of the permanent executive-residence staff.
That day, the usher would have armed the Obamas with a stack of briefing books regarding their new home, says Gary Walters. Mr. Walters retired in 2007 from 37 years of White House service, including a 20-year stint as chief usher — during which, he says, he habitually slept on a cot in the White House basement in the days leading up to the transition.
In this year’s inauguration, for the first time in four decades, Mr. Walters is not being employed by the government and is finally allowed to speak publicly (as well as fielding calls for advice from his former colleagues).
“These people who are moving into the White House are not familiar with the private quarters on the second and third floors,” he says. “There are historical elements that are put together for consideration. There are ongoing projects that have to be discussed or at least summarized. There are all the choices that need to be made.”
The family relays to staff everything from food allergies and preferences to what function each of their rooms will serve and how they should be decorated. The Obamas have had to decide which pieces they like from the White House’s large collection of historical furniture — a catalogue would have been included in their briefing materials — and where they want to mix in items of their own.
“One of the areas that gets a tremendous amount of attention early on in every administration is the Oval Office, because that is so emblematic of the president’s time at the White House,” Mr. Walters says.
Among the decisions that faced Mr. Obama was which desk to use, out of a selection that includes “the Kennedy desk,” made from timbers recovered from a British ship that sank off the coast of Newfoundland after being sent by Queen Victoria in search of the Franklin Expedition in 1852. The desk also was favoured by Franklin Roosevelt.
Mr. Walters adds that while most presidents choose from the White House collection, some (including Richard Nixon and George Bush Sr.) have toted in their own desks. After all, he says, “they have to be comfortable.”
10:30 a.m.: The longest motorcade
But before the White House staff even inches toward enacting the Obamas’ directives to transform the residence, the outgoing president must physically depart.
Usually, that event takes place after final farewells to the staff who have worked as virtually the first couple’s closest personal servants, and who will remain in the residence to serve the new president.
“There’s a very emotional goodbye,” Mr. Walters recalls. “Shortly thereafter, the president escorts the president-elect to the North Portico. That’s when they get in the motorcade and go up to Capitol Hill.”
Tradition dictates that the outgoing and incoming presidents ride together in the same armoured limousine. Following them are cars carrying, in order, the presidential security staff (including a military aide carrying a black satchel of top-secret nuclear codes), the outgoing and incoming first ladies, the chiefs of staff, top advisers, other members of the president-elect’s family and special guests.
After they are all in place, what’s probably the longest motorcade assembled in each presidency speeds eastward down Pennsylvania Avenue past the National Mall (this year, for the first time ever, fully open for inauguration revellers) toward the Capitol.
“As soon as they depart the White House grounds, or as quickly thereafter as possible,” Mr. Walters says, “the residence staff begins the reconfiguring and redecorating.”
11:30 a.m.: The main event
Just before 12 o’clock, when the U.S. Constitution dictates that Mr. Bush’s second term in office officially expires, Barack H. Obama will be announced and mount the massive wooden platform that has been constructed specially for his inauguration and fitted, like an elaborate mask, over the western face of the Capitol.
The ceremony that will ensue is an Americanized version of a British coronation and it has evolved for more than two centuries under the close watch of Congress and the Senate, allowing each president only a narrow margin for adding a personal touch.
Mr. Obama has scheduled a poetry reading by Yale African-American studies professor Elizabeth Alexander — making him only the fourth president, all of them Democrats, to invite a poet. He also has invited soul singer Aretha Franklin to perform before the swearing-in of vice-president-elect Joseph Biden, and asked violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill to play a piece by Oscar-winning Hollywood composer John Williams (Star Wars, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter) before Mr. Obama takes the oath of office and delivers his inaugural address.
Controversially, the invocation will be given by popular evangelical author and pastor Rick Warren, who drew wide criticism for his recent remarks against gay marriage. The Obama team tried to quiet that storm this week by inviting the well-known gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, to give a blessing at tomorrow’s customary Sunday-afternoon inaugural-welcoming event, which will feature performances by Beyoncé, Bono and Bruce Springsteen.
The oath itself is “absolutely cast in stone,” says Philip C. Brooks, an inauguration archivist and historian who worked with the 1969, 1989 and 1993 inaugural committees, although Mr. Obama can choose whether to append the words “so help me God.”
He also is sending a personal message by putting his hand upon a famous Bible first used by Abraham Lincoln as he delivers the oath, which he may seal by giving the tome a kiss.
“Every president puts a little different spin on things every time,” Mr. Brooks says, “and I’m sure that president Obama will do the same.”
Noon: Extreme makeover
As the ritual at the Capitol continues, an assembly line of moving trucks will be shuttling to and from the loading dock at the White House. Staffers will scurry in and out, removing the Bush family’s belongings — to be flown to their new home in Dallas — and madly unpacking the Obamas’ things.
“I call it organized chaos,” says Mr. Walters, the former chief usher. “The residence staff is a total of 93 people, including chefs, butlers, housekeeping and maintenance staff. On Inauguration Day, they are all assigned various jobs to take care of. We don’t bring in any extra help. There are no moving people that are brought in. The vans are there to deliver furniture, but there are no additional staff.
“The objective is to have, for the incoming president and first lady, everything completed by the time they return from the inauguration. … They have at their call all their personal items in the closets, food in the refrigerator. The goal is ‘no unopened boxes’.”
The speed of the operation often depends on the weather. If it is too cold for the family to remain outdoors throughout the inaugural parade, which often runs past 4:30 or 5 p.m., the staff must compensate by unpacking even faster.
“It’s like anybody else moving into a new home,” Mr. Walters says. “You want it to be yours from the beginning. The residence staff … know that their responsibility is to change with the White House to suit the incoming family, not the other way around.”
They go so far as to repaint entire rooms over the course of the afternoon. Political staffers who manage to creep into the White House before the new president arrives have often recounted stories of emerging from their offices at dinnertime to find the halls a different colour, new art on the walls and new rugs underfoot.
12:30 p.m.: Bowing out
After the swearing-in, the new president’s first task will be to escort George and Laura Bush and family through the Capitol to the east side of the building, where the presidential helicopter (known as Marine One only when the sitting president is aboard) will be waiting. It will fly the couple and their entourage to Andrews Air Force Base, where they will board a plane to Midland, Tex., to spend their first post-White House night at the Bush family ranch.
Mr. Duberstein recalls being with Mr. Reagan for his final helicopter ride: “The helicopter went over the White House. And President Reagan looked down out of the helicopter window and patted Nancy on her knee and said, ‘Look, dear, there’s our little bungalow.’ That is the moment that all the tears started flowing.”
After the Bushes lift off, Mr. Obama will slip back inside the Capitol for a brief signing ceremony before the Inaugural Lunch. It is here, mere minutes after becoming the president, transition experts say, that Mr. Obama may choose to complete his first official business by signing executive orders or memoranda, both of which have been used by previous presidents to show they have hit the ground running.
“Executive orders issued early have the benefit of being a signal you can use,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who heads the non-partisan White House Transition Project and recently published the book Managing the President’s Message. “If you can issue some orders, you’re in control. You know what you’re doing.”
Aides have hinted that one of Mr. Obama’s first acts in office will be to order the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Other experts have suggested that he is likely to address social issues or to promote transparency by striking down recent orders by Mr. Bush that would limit public access to documents from his administration.
Mr. Obama will not have long for signing orders before he will be beckoned by his new military aides, who usually watch the inauguration from a special room inside the Capitol.
The five aides who serve the president take turns safeguarding the infamous black satchel (often called “the football”) that holds the secrets to the country’s nuclear-arms system. While Mr. Obama will already have been briefed on the basics, after the inauguration the aide on duty will pass on more information — possibly including Mr. Obama’s own nuclear codes.
“There will be some kind of handoff from President Bush,” Buzz Patterson says, “but there are some things he won’t get until he’s in office.” Mr. Patterson was the top military aide to Mr. Clinton during his second inauguration. “It will be eye-opening for Obama.”
1 p.m.: Lunch break
Mr. Obama will have to absorb that information quickly if he is going to make his exclusive Inaugural Lunch inside the Capitol building with Mr. Biden, their families, members of the Supreme Court and Congress and other guests. The meal has been designed to recall the tastes of, once again, President Lincoln.
They didn’t go so far as to replicate the corned beef, cabbage and blackberry pie that Lincoln is said to have dined on at the Willard Hotel after his inauguration in March of 1861. Instead, Mr. Obama’s first meal as president will begin with a seafood stew and move on to a “brace of American birds (pheasant and duck)” before finishing with apple-cinnamon sponge cake.
It will be served on replicas of Lincoln’s White House china, and the backdrop will be a painting of Lincoln signing the bill that first protected what would become Yosemite National Park.
By the time the wait staff has cleared their trays of California dessert champagne, though, the Inaugural Committee chairs will be chafing.
“You hope they don’t run late at lunch,” recalls Penne Peacock, a former Washington socialite and Mauritius diplomat who co-chaired five days’ worth of events for the elder Mr. Bush’s inauguration in 1989. “Everything has to be precise.”
2:30 p.m.: On parade
Precision is also the watchword of the 90 military bands marching in the Inaugural Parade, which accompanies the president and his family on their ceremonial ride home to the White House.
It officially begins at 2:30 p.m., but people are expected to be jockeying for spots along the nearly 20-block route as soon as the area is opened to the public at 7 a.m., which raises concerns about how long they can withstand the cold. Mr. Brooks, the historian, recalls that Mr. Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 took place on “such an incredibly cold day, they cancelled the parade for fear of frostbite.”
The Obama team will be more worried about security. To pre-empt any violence, the number of ticketed bleacher seats for the parade has been cut to about 9,000 from 20,000 for Mr. Bush’s last inauguration.
Police from all over the region will be planted in crowds to scan for suspect behaviour, and there will be careful control over who is admitted to the inner fringe along the parade route. (Meanwhile, a select few will be watching from the Canadian embassy, one of Pennsylvania Ave.’s choicest viewing spots.)
Still, the Secret Service will not be able to control whether Mr. Obama decides to walk part of the route with his family. The tradition was revived by Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 became the first president to walk the route since Thomas Jefferson in 1805.
“Carter wanted to emphasize that this was the people’s presidency and get away from the trappings of the imperial presidency, particularly the Nixon years,” Mr. Brooks says. “Jimmy Carter wanted to draw a very clear line and say, ‘The people are in charge again — we’ve ended the long national nightmare’.”
Does that sound familiar?
“I can well imagine that Mr. Obama will be walking for some of the stretch, with the wife and kids,” Mr. Brooks predicts.
As he does, all around him, officers on high alert will be employing cutting-edge technology.
“You’ve got facial-recognition software, surveillance cameras,” says Mr. Locke, the former FBI agent. “They even have different cameras around town that, should there be a gunshot, can identify where the gunshot came from.” He adds: “They have to err on the side of caution.”
Finally, the Obamas will take their spot in the viewing stand constructed outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch as much of the rest of the parade as they please.
5 p.m. onward: Beau of the balls
At the White House, ushers will be expecting to welcome the new first family just before supper. “When they do come in from the Inaugural Parade, they usually have with them the family and friends that they’ve invited to stay that first night — as many as the White House can accommodate,” says Mr. Walters, the former chief usher.
Typically, the new president opts to host a buffet dinner so his guests can come and go while they prep themselves for the inaugural balls — the most glamorous of the day’s traditions.
The transition team has tried to lighten the pressure on Mr. Obama by limiting the number of official bashes, which he is pledged to attend, to 10. (Mr. Clinton hit 21 on the night of his second inauguration.) They have also reserved a number of tickets for the newly created Neighborhood Ball for Washington residents and are throwing a free Kids’ Inaugural Concert.
But that has not made it any easier for the legions of Washington socialites and the upper-class who’s who of the entire nation, desperate to unlock the secrets of being “invited” to purchase tickets for the most expensive balls, official or unofficial.
The country’s first biracial president might make history on the glitz-and-glam scale as well. Dozens of high-profile celebrities, ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello, have pledged to flock to Washington whether or not they get an audience with Mr. Obama. And designers from all over the country have bid to design Michelle Obama’s gown (no choice had been announced at press time).
At the factory where Mr. Obama’s tuxedo was made — Hart Schaffner Marx in Des Plaines, Ill. — workers will be finishing their shifts on Tuesday evening and preparing for their own festivities at a union hall on Chicago’s west side.
“We’re gonna have the people’s celebration,” says Joe Costigan, treasurer of the Midwest Region of UNITE HERE, which represents the factory workers. “Our people can’t get to D.C. The fact is he’s there, and he got there on our shoulders.”
Ruby Sims, president of the local union, says she made sure to put her hands “on all parts” of Mr. Obama’s suit. “I’m going to be able to tell my grandkids about it. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you’re a part of history. Our people are in an uproar.”
To attend the 10 official balls (along with, in all likelihood, a few of the unofficial ones), the Obamas, the Bidens and a select entourage will use the Secret Service as their travel pass to crisscross Washington, which will remain in relative lockdown for the night.
Harry Thomason, a Los Angeles TV-and-movie producer who was one of Mr. Clinton’s inaugural chairmen, describes travelling in the presidential entourage as “an ultimate-celebrity experience. It’s much bigger than anything in Hollywood.”
2: 30 a.m.: Home sweet home
Presidents such as Mr. Clinton have been known to ball-hop through to the next morning — Buzz Patterson remembers it as “the longest night of my life.” But the Obamas will have two little girls waiting for them anxiously in a strange, new home.
Whenever they return, it is customary for the chief usher, in spite of his ultralong day, to stay up to welcome the first couple.
“They walk in, and it is their house. … More than their house, it’s their home,” Gary Walters says. “You hope everybody collapses for at least a little bit of time and tries to get their wits back together.”
He adds: “The next day, things don’t slow down. The president goes right to work.”