Can't Put a Price on History

For Some, Preparing for Inaugural Events Is No Time for Frugality

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008; Page C01

Cody Matthews isn't a wealthy man, but he figures that witnessing the inauguration of the nation's first African American president is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he's willing to dole out a hefty sum to experience it.

He'll spend two nights at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza downtown at $1,200 a night. He has paid $550 to fly buddy Paige Bradford in from Salt Lake City and has put aside $1,000 for two inaugural ball tickets. Dinner at the Willard Room the night before President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in will run about $200, as will a celebration meal the next night at Al Tiramisu. And to make sure he looks every bit the Washington sophisticate when he steps out, Matthews is buying a new tux, an overcoat and other accouterments.

The total for the two days? Five grand and counting.

"It is going to be expensive, but I've been planning it since June," said Matthews, 31, an IT specialist for a cosmetics retailer who lives in Owings Mills, Md. He is putting most of the expenses on his credit cards. "This is going to be an experience to remember, and I was willing to go all out for it."

With the nation officially mired in a recession, many Washington area residents are scaling back on holiday shopping, turning down the heat and spending less on food, yet some are willing to blow two mortgage payments to participate in the making of history next month.

Luxury hotel rooms at rates above $1,000 a night are being grabbed like candy from a split piƱata. Boutiques are selling out of ball gowns, and tailors are creating custom tuxedos, even before tickets to most balls are being sold. Limousines are being booked, and hairdressers and aestheticians are being reserved at a pace they've never seen.

"It's as if we're not even in a recession," said Lena Tali, owner of Blackberry Limousines in Sterling, which is renting a "Hummer package" for $1,700 a day, a 10-passenger limousine for $1,400 and a Mercedes S500 package for $1,200 -- fuel, taxes and gratuities included. "I'm sure we'll be booked up for the five days. I've got people calling me from all over, even out of state. They aren't even worried about the prices, because they know it won't be cheap."

Although swank inauguration festivities are generally associated with Washington's wealthy and powerful, Obama's inauguration is attracting a more varied group, said David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"Typically, the people who would be able to attend would be people who knew insiders or were insiders themselves," he said. The parade has been the only event largely attended by those outside politics and business circles. "You certainly wouldn't have had everyday people who would be going out of their way to spend a lot of money to participate . . . the way they appear to be doing this time."

Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian at the U.S. Senate Historical Office, said atypical visitors also attended the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Blacks came because it was the first time they were allowed to march in the parade.

"Probably the most popular so far was Andrew Jackson's first inauguration in 1829, because he was seen as the people's president," Ritchie said. "The well-to-do of Washington were appalled at the common folk who showed up for Jackson's inauguration."

Colleen Evans, spokeswoman for the Ritz-Carlton hotels in Washington, said: "Americans are an optimistic group, and I think everybody is just tired of the negative news and all the complaints. This is a time when they can put aside the pessimism and just celebrate being an American."

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