Like the national debt, inaugurals keep getting bigger. Galas to the left of us, balls to the right, and for heaven's sake, stay away from Pennsylvania Avenue or you'll be run down by a bunch of cowboys or trod upon by a marching band.
As long ago as 1809, when James Madison danced his way into office with a ball at Long's hotel, John Quincy Adams stalked home to write in his diary, "The crowd was excessive -- the heat oppressive, and the entertainment bad."
John Quincy had a point. One does not attend to have fun; one goes to see History in the Making. The fun comes afterward, in talking about it.
That is one of the things to remember when attending an inaugural ball. The other is to be on time. When one woman herded her guests into an inaugural ball four years ago, they were full of cocktails and anticipation, but half an hour late. Alas, alack, the president had come and gone, having chosen that particular dance as his first stop of the evening.
Most Washingtonians, however, prefer to celebrate in the privacy of their own homes. Perhaps it is a group memory of disasters like Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball, held in a makeshift building that had been erected in Judiciary Square. It was so cold that the 5,000 guests who came to dance were forced to keep their coats on and the liquid refreshments froze.
By the time the guests, already deprived of drink, learned that supper, too, would be delayed, they were so angry the whole mob headed for the kitchen to help themselves. There they were held at bay by an equally angry cook armed with a tub of boiling water.
A few galas like that and word gets out among the city folk. Stay home. By 1841, you can see the inauguration getting out of hand. Bread and circuses. Fifty thousand showed up to welcome Buchanan, and on Teddy Roosevelt's big day, there were 30,000 in the parade, marching to the beat of 50 bands.
By the time we reach Eisenhower, there were 500,000 attending the inaugural ceremonies, not even counting Miss Burma the elephant or the two Nevada cowboys who rode their horses into the Neptune Grill on Independence Avenue and demanded a Scotch and soda and a beer.
Given the progression of processions, this year we may see 500,000 horses and heaven knows how many to cheer them on. It's a red, white and blue bash, a patriotic party held every four years with Miss Liberty inviting everyone to come and play before we have to turn to concern for taxes and arms talks. It would be churlish to completely ignore such an all-American event, so why not emulate the State Societies -- those bands of D.C. residents gathered to reminisce about their roots -- and put on a dinner based on the foods of your home state?
It is better to come from some places than others and though Wisconsin cheeses are deservedly famous, think how much nicer it would be to be a Maine-iac and feast on lobster. Or have Idaho trout, Alaskan king crab, Washington State salmon, Florida stone crabs or the dungeness crabs from California accompanied by that state's wines?
If your state is better known for "continental" cuisine and surf and turf, or moon pies and Dr. Pepper than it is for its native products, make it a group supper, with one dish to represent the home states of each of your guests.
Honor your New England friends with baked beans and Boston brown bread, or corned beef and cabbage, or clam chowder or Indian pudding. There is gumbo or Brunswick stew for the Carolinans, Virginia ham and Maryland crabs. Chile or barbecue from the Southwest, or guacamole and tortillas. Grits or hopping john from the South, and cajun dishes like blackened redfish or crayfish bisque. Apples from the Northwest, bread from the Midwest, Philadelphia pepper pot or shoo-fly pie. And fishhouse punch to end the evening.
So your guests won't feel entirely cut off from the larger events, have a friend run through wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, waving and pausing to shake a hand or two. And after the evening has ended, call the Smithsonian and offer to donate your outfit.