Every four years, we elect a president. Every four years, we inaugurate a president. Every four years, someone is shocked- -- shocked -- that wealthy donors are part of the process.
As private planes swoop into Washington like swallows to Capistrano, two songs fill the air. One comes from supporters of the president who are thrilled to see him take the oath of office, proud of the process, and pleased as punch to be part of the festivities. The other tune comes from critics who are unhappy about the election results, suspicious of big money in politics, and convinced a four-day coronation is excessive and unseemly.
This is especially true this year, with the war in Iraq and tsunami disaster in South Asia, prompting calls for the $40 million celebration to be scaled down or canceled altogether in lieu of a simple swearing-in ceremony. The pro-inaugural contingent says critics are hijacking a democratic tradition for partisan political purposes.
The reality is there was never really a question whether the inaugural festivities would proceed, just as there was never a question that pundits on both sides would toss in their two cents' worth. For every donor to the 55th Presidential Inaugural Committee, there's a blogger auguring Faustian bargains and the fall of civilization. News flash: The champagne will pour and the big-money folks will be there to do what they always do in Washington: They'll see and be seen. They'll schmooze at dozens of official and unofficial inaugural events. They'll get face time with the president and congressional leaders. They'll press the flesh and entertain clients. They'll witness history being made. If they're lucky, they'll squeeze some fun into the process.
"Obviously, there are terrible things going on in the world," says Brad Freeman, co-chair of the inaugural committee and a $100,000 donor himself. "But life goes on . . . We're not not going to have an inauguration."
Which is exactly how they pitched donors. "We worked hard for four years to get this person elected and now he's won," says Freeman. "This is time for to celebrate."
"Time to celebrate," adds Mercer Reynolds, committee co-chair, "and put the bow on the box."
More than half of the $25.5 million raised so far for inaugural festivities came from 54 individuals or companies who gave $250,000 (the cap set by the committee); another $10 million came from others who donated $100,000 or more to the committee.
Corporate donors include Microsoft, Exxon, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Ford, Lockheed Martin, Marriott, Pepsi, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Time Warner, Toyota, and Northrop Grumman, to name just a few. Individuals include some of America's top executives, such as banana king Carl Lindner, owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. "I believe this is the greatest country in the world," says Lindner. "We have the opportunity to elect our president, and the inauguration is a celebration of our democracy."
It would be naive to suggest that huge donors aren't on a first-name basis with Washington power brokers, and vice versa. Many of them already have lobbyists who regularly do business with the White House and Congress; giving to the inaugural committee every four year is simply an operating expense. Critics sneer that fat cat donors get a quid pro quo by supporting the inaugural celebration, a simplistic interpretation of how Washington works. The fact is that while major donors have and will benefit from Bush administration policies, many would have contributed regardless of who won the election.
In addition, Reynolds says, big donors give with the understanding that much of the money underwrites events for thousands of other attendees from around the country who otherwise could not afford to attend. Another big selling point: Tuesday's salute to the military, and the new Commander-in-Chief inaugural ball, where 6,000 soldiers who served or are about to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq will attend free as guests of the inaugural committee. "There are a lot of patriots out there who are giving just for that," he says.
In the end, they say, many of the gazillionaires are no different from other inaugural celebrants in one regard: They believe in the political system, support the administration, and get a thrill being a witness to history.
"I don't care how jaded we've become," Freeman says. "When the president puts his hand on the Bible and is sworn in, we get goose bumps."
Getting a thrill from the swearing-in ceremony doesn't mean your average VIP does anything average. They stay at luxury hotels, glide around town in limousines, and eat at the finest restaurants.
For their four-day whirl in Washington, they have plenty of options. "Underwriters" who give $250,000 get 80 tickets to eight official inaugural events. Topping the list is a private lunch with President Bush and Vice President Cheney on Wednesday, an exclusive candlelight dinner Wednesday night, a concert and gala, seats at Thursday's swearing-in ceremony, VIP parade tickets, special box seating at the inaugural balls, and their corporate or individual name on all printed materials. The $100,000 sponsors receive a total of 38 tickets to most of the same events (a less intimate Tuesday reception with Bush and Cheney instead of lunch) and sponsor listings. The tickets can be used by the donor or a designee.
Many top donors to the campaign and the inauguration come to Washington, but skip most of the official events in favor of the hundreds of unofficial parties, receptions and dinners around town.
The only official inaugural event MGM Mirage CEO Terry Lanni will attend is the swearing-in ceremony. This is the sixth inauguration for the Nevada Republican, and he and his wife are escorting just one special guest. "We're bringing our 18-year-old son, Patrick," says Lanni. "He's very political, very Republican. He's the one who motivated us to come. We have a number of friends in the Washington area, so we're going to use this as an occasion to get together with them."
The list of unofficial parties runs into the hundreds, almost all of them more intimate and entertaining than the official events. Lanni, the new chairman of the American Gaming Association, is hosting a luncheon with longtime friend Franco Nuschese for the 50 friends (including Freeman) at Cafe Milano Tuesday. General Motors will host a bipartisan reception for 500 at Cafe Milano the night before.
"It's a way to kick off the inaugural week," says Debbie Dingell, chairman of GM's foundation and wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). "I've traditionally done something that brings together people from both sides of the aisle." The Republican leadership has a lunch Tuesday at the Metropolitan Club. Buffy Cafritz has invited 250 friends to the Mandarin Oriental for a late supper Wednesday night, the same evening 10,000 Texas cowboys and cowgirls will cheer W when he drops by the Black Tie and Boots Ball. General Electric, like any company with offices along Pennsylvania Avenue, will host an open house Thursday to watch the parade. Almost every senator or congressman will host or attend a party in their honor. The list goes on and on, an endless parade of see and be seen.
The only places you won't spot a VIP -- aside from the drop-by by the president and first lady -- are at the official inaugural balls. One crowded, standing-room-only event (bad booze, little food, loud music and no seats) is enough for even the most dedicated patriot.
Dingell founded the Michigan dinner dance in 1993 to give attendees a decent alternative -- sit-down dinner for 3,000, dancing, and entertainment for $150, the same price as the official ball ticket.
"People think 'inaugural ball' and have visions of the most special thing they'll do in their lifetime,' she says. "The reality is that it's a total nightmare. We try to create the memory everyone thinks they're going to have."
It is so easy to scan the names of inaugural donors, tick off a list of business-friendly administration policies, and assume each VIP carries home a package of lovely insider souvenirs from the trip to Washington. Tempting, but not quite how it works.
True, the relationship between big money and big politics is thistight, but inaugurations are a tiny slice of that very rich pie. Practically speaking, inaugurations are not the time to lobby; in fact, it's considered pushy and inappropriate to corner a lawmaker and make your case. People are too distracted, too busy racing around for anything but quick pleasantries.
"Inaugurals are class reunions for political types," says Ken Duberstein, chairman of the Duberstein Group and former White House chief of staff. "Very little lobbying takes place. This isn't about favors. This is about auld lang syne from the campaign."
The myth about inaugural donors is that they will get something by contributing that they would not otherwise receive. Doesn't hurt, of course, to have your picture taken with the president or sit next to a Cabinet secretary at one of these VIP events. What's important, says Duberstein, is "face time." "That's not lobbying, that's relationship building. You're not asking people to support X or Y, or block A or B. You're there to be seen. It's being part of the team."
"It's the perception of being close to the president," says Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "They want to see the president, and they want to make sure the president sees them."
If and how much it directly helps your business is unclear. Probably not that much; these VIPS are already supremely plugged in. Reynolds says, "They can meet anyone in the administration through their own contacts. Just giving $250,000 or $100,000 to the inauguration is really more of a networking tool for corporations -- a way to entertain clients, a way they can meet other people throughout the week." Many companies, he says, buy a donor package every four years regardless of who wins the election -- such as The Washington Post, a $100,000 sponsor that distributes its tickets to major advertisers.
In the end, it's all about making the scene, VIP-style.
"This is Washington's equivalent of Oscar Night," says Ed Gillespie, outgoing chairman of the RNC. "They want to see Cabinet secretaries, White House staff, TV pundits because it's exciting." And maybe the next president? "Oh, anybody who's thinking about '08 will be all over the place."