Bands know that a place in the presidential inaugural parade is much too prestigious to leave to fate.
So right after Virginia Tech's Highty-Tighties marching band applied for a spot in the 2005 inaugural parade, no one sat idly waiting for an answer.
The Highty-Tighties of Virginia Tech in action, during an election bond rally in Roanoke in 2002.
(Kelly Hahn Johnson -- The Roanoke Times)
The band and the Virginia Tech community jump-started the process that movers and shakers follow to get things done in Washington: lobbying. Band members created a Web site stressing the school's inaugural parade experience -- four appearances -- and urging friends, fans, students and alumni to call and e-mail senators, congressmen and the governor to win an endorsement for the Highty-Tighties.
Competition for parade spots is fierce. About 343 groups in categories ranging from marching bands to floats to hand-bell choirs applied for the 75 spots allotted for the two-hour parade on Jan. 20.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee makes the final picks, relying on people with established clout for guidance. "We have reached out to the senior senators of states which did not submit applications for help in selecting groups in the hopes of having all 50 states involved," said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. The committee plans to announce the winners tomorrow along with such inaugural celebration details as the theme, the schedule of events Jan. 18-20 and the locations of the nine official inaugural balls.
Schmitt said that 157 marching bands applied, some as early as June. On Friday, she said, the committee began notifying 30 bands across the country that they had been chosen; a couple more may be added before the field is complete. A look at the Highty-Tighties Web site showed the results of its lobbying -- and talent: "We made it!"
Not every group followed that recipe for success. In the District, the Ballou Senior High School Marching Band did not apply, but Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wrote a letter to President Bush pushing for its inclusion and lobbied White House officials and several members of Congress. Then she made her efforts public, pointing to the marching band as a bright spot in the school's year. It worked; Ballou's band is in.
"I could not be more thrilled," Norton said yesterday evening. "We worked it from the inside. . . . We spoke to the right people, and we think we got to some very sympathetic ears high up in the administration."
Inaugural planners say that endorsements from the influential and well-connected, though, are just one factor in the process and that skill, talent and diversity are valued.
"Endorsements are noted," Schmitt said, "but our primary goal is to create a parade that is not only entertaining but reflects the spirit and the great diversity of the nation."
Getting into the inaugural parade involves a quintessential Washington experience. Organizations apply, submitting background material including audio, video, photographs and the names of important people who support the application. The packages go to Army Sgt. Maj. Bob Powers, a member of the Army band and the noncommissioned officer in charge of band control for the Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. The Joint Task Force coordinates the military involvement and serves as the Defense Department's liaison to the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. All three committees make up the organizational machine that plans and runs the inauguration.
Powers processes the band applications and makes a high-tech presentation to the presidential committee. An endorsement, Powers said, "carries a lot of weight, but it is not the be-all and end-all. But, I mean, it would help if you had 10 senators endorsing you."
The presentation of Virginia Tech's application noted that it was backed by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
The effort was something Virginia Tech did not leave to chance, said band director George McNeill: "You have to do the work to get in."
The Highty-Tighties marched in the 1953, 1957 and 1961 inaugural parades and won first place each year, earning them the unofficial title of "Undefeated Champions," McNeill said. He added that the band also marched in President Bill Clinton's first inaugural parade.
Powers said that once the committees have identified the groups they want in the parade, the goal is to notify them before anyone leaves for Christmas break. "There is a lot of money involved," Powers said. "There are a lot of schools out there across the country who will spend $150,000, not including food, to fly the bands out here and pay for hotels. . . . Once they start notifying the groups chosen, there are a lot more disappointed than there are happy feelings."
For the Highty-Tighties, being chosen is like a football team that is invited to the biggest bowl game. And that has some effects that can last beyond the experience of the day. "It helps our recruiting efforts," McNeill said.
Powers said, though, that just being in the inaugural parade is the biggest prize for marching bands and often has no reflection on their political preference.
"It is a life event," he said. "Groups apply before the election is decided. They want to be part of a historic event."