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Obama Won't Light Up the Skies as Other Presidents Did

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By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

For the first time in 28 years, there will be no fireworks on the Mall during inaugural festivities.

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"We never discussed having fireworks as part of the events. It just didn't come up," Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the incoming president's inaugural committee, said yesterday.

In repeated public announcements, the committee has promised that Barack Obama's inauguration will be "the most open and accessible inauguration in American history." But the lack of fireworks represents a departure from one of the most accessible traditions that accompany the celebration of a new presidency. A fireworks display has been a feature of the past seven consecutive inaugurations, starting with Ronald Reagan's in 1981.

And this year, other than the traditional inaugural parade, opportunities for free entertainment accessible to Washingtonians and those visiting for the festivities seem sparse when compared with some previous inaugurations, particularly Bill Clinton's first.

With the exception of Sunday's 90-minute concert at the Lincoln Memorial, there are no official Obama events that don't require a ticket or an invitation. Free concerts on the Mall have been routinely staged at other inaugurations, usually as part of a welcoming ceremony. In 1993, Clinton's free welcoming concert, featuring such acts as Bob Dylan, Elton John and Michael Jackson, lasted three hours and the festivities stretched on for three more days in a celebration similar in scope to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

But the Obama inaugural organizers say they are making the events accessible in other ways, particularly for those who won't be battling the crowds. There will be Web-based interactive opportunities to participate -- for example, the committee has suggested that people use the Internet to connect with others interested in holding neighborhood celebrations. Organizers also point to the planned broadcasts of the Lincoln Memorial concert, a Monday evening Verizon Center concert featuring Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, and a star-studded first-ever "Neighborhood Inaugural Ball" on Tuesday night.

In an e-mail, Douglass cited the Verizon concert, with "thousands of seats going to children of military families," and the Neighborhood Ball, "with free or low-cost tickets for D.C. residents and members of the grass roots," and the official Commander-in-Chief's Ball "for enlisted personnel, junior officers, wounded warriors [and] families of the fallen" as examples of the populist outreach.

President Bush's 2001 inauguration featured a free Lincoln Memorial concert as well as a $5-a-head youth concert at MCI (now Verizon) Center. Among the performers were Destiny's Child, 98 Degrees and Jessica Simpson.

At the 1989 inauguration of Bush's father, "we had somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 13 open events -- 'open' meaning we did our best to get them to the general public," recalled Ron Kaufman, a key planner of that celebration. "A percentage went to insiders, because that is the nature of the beast." He said Bush Sr.'s "instructions were very clear. The first thing he said to me was 'I want to make this as open as possible.' He was fanatical about it."

The "open and accessible" claim for presidential inaugurations is by no means new. "This inaugural is going to be an open inaugural, an accessible inaugural, and a dignified inaugural that very much reflects the kind of campaign that Bill Clinton and Al Gore ran," the late Ronald Brown, who headed the 1993 inauguration committee, was quoted as saying at the time.

Reagan's first inauguration included free entertainment at three local airports, Union Station and Smithsonian museums. His second inauguration included all-day indoor concerts around the Mall featuring big band, jazz and gospel music.

The 1985 inaugural parade itself was canceled because of bitter cold, but the previous evening's fireworks display went on as scheduled.

Some participants in past inaugurations say the lack of fireworks this year undermines a populist message.

"The symbolism is all wrong not to do it," said Craig Shirley, who worked on Reagan's second inauguration and has written two books on the former president. "There isn't anybody who doesn't like fireworks. . . . There's no preferred seating for fireworks."

For Clinton's second inaugural celebration in 1997, fireworks were launched from 10 locations around Washington including St. Elizabeths, the Marine Corps' Iwo Jima Memorial and RFK Stadium.

Since 1981, the fireworks celebrations have been handled by the Grucci family of Brookhaven, N.Y., which created a depiction of Clinton playing the saxophone in 1993 and a "W" in the sky for Bush's 2005 inauguration.

Phil Butler, a producer with Fireworks by Grucci, said the company was disappointed with the Obama committee's decision, calling it "inexplicable."

"It's always been the kickoff in the past -- and it's always been for the average Joe who couldn't get a ticket," Butler said. "It opens up the only free entertainment for the entire capital region that people can depend on."


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