There will be no official inaugural balls this year. No first dance with the president and first lady. No giddy, half-drunk supporters cheering them on. No stories to tell grandchildren. Instead, Tom Hanks will host a prime-time special Wednesday night with music performances by Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi and Demi Lovato.
In this dark moment, amid the pandemic and after the Capitol riot, the loss of inaugural balls seems the least of our concerns. But it is a loss. It was a night when thousands of people could run around the nation’s capital cheering their new president without fear, a chance to dress up, get down and be part of a historic moment. Most of the guests spent months working or donating to elect the new president. Their candidate won and this was the night to celebrate before everyone went back to the serious work of running the country the next day.
To be honest, the modern inauguration ball has never been a great party: expensive (even if you snag an invitation) and crowded, more like a dance held in a high school gym than a state dinner. But none of that really mattered.
In the end, it’s about the memories: watching Bill Clinton playing the sax or Beyoncé singing “At Last” to Barack and Michelle Obama. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile was part of Nelson Mandela’s escort to the 1997 ball; the activist Lily Ledbetter’s driver brought Brazile home in a limo after she hurt her knee at Obama’s ball in 2013. Everyone who ever attended a ball has a story, a photo, a moment. And the night’s symbolism can have a resonance well beyond the dance floor.
“In the 1993 Clinton-Gore inauguration, the LGBT Ball was a profound moment for so many of us,” says Philip Dufour, who served as social secretary for Al and Tipper Gore. “Never before had there been a ball for the community, so there was such a sense of joy and real pride. It wasn’t just a dance, it represented how far we had come — but even more importantly, how much was about to change.”
For most guests, their first inaugural ball is their only inaugural ball. But McSweeny, a businessman and philanthropist, and his wife Dorothy have attended eight inaugural balls — what is probably a record number — spanning Richard Nixon’s in 1973 to Obama’s in 2009. The day is extra special for the two Washington A-listers: They married on Jan. 20, 1969, and have celebrated their anniversary alongside inaugural revelers for decades. “The presidents supplied the champagne,” he says.
Jimmy Carter’s ball, they remember, was a lot of fun; Reagan’s the most elegant. The McSweenys typically bought a table and invited friends who had never been to an inaugural ball to let them experience the pageantry and patriotism first hand. They’d start with a dinner at home and then head to the ball shortly before the president was scheduled to arrive. “The key is knowing when to share the joy and when to go home,” he says.
The official balls, which date back to James Madison’s in 1809, have been canceled before — Franklin Pierce’s after the death of his son, Woodrow Wilson’s because of the cost, and Warren Harding’s to model simplicity. It wasn’t until 1949 that Harry Truman revived the tradition.
Then demand for balls expanded. Kennedy had five. Reagan hosted 10 in 1985, while Clinton in 1997 spent the night racing to a record 14. (Hundreds of guests stood outside Union Station, some coatless, for more than two hours after fire marshals closed the doors because of the crush of people inside.)
Although the number of official balls has been reduced since then, unofficial “balls” have sprung up like weeds — some state-sponsored, some fancy events for VIPs, some fundraisers for pet causes, some galas featuring A-list celebrities and even a few pure scams.
As the official balls got bigger, inevitably they became less glamorous. Hotel ballrooms gave way to convention centers, which allowed the president to glide more efficiently from ballroom to ballroom. There were few chairs and those were occupied by VIPs or senior citizens. Food? Cheese, crackers or pretzels. The lines to buy overpriced drink tickets were surpassed only by the longer lines to actually get those drinks.
Even President Trump, who raised a record $107 million for his 2017 inauguration, didn’t spend much of that on his balls. His Liberty Ball featured red, white and blue cupcakes, paper plates, plastic utensils and some of the Rockettes.
The highlight of any ball is the moment when the president, vice president and their spouses twirl across the stage, make a few brief remarks, then are whisked off to their next stop.
The first lady’s gown — always a deeply held secret until that night — is a potent symbol of her style and a Moment for the American fashion industry: The designer gets global recognition; the dress is displayed at the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 1989, 63-year-old Barbara Bush wore a blue velvet and satin gown by Arnold Scaasi, who said the new first lady was suddenly “the most glamorous grandmother in the United States.” For the 2009 ball, Michelle Obama wore a white embroidered silk chiffon one-shoulder gown created by 26-year-old designer Jason Wu. The little-known Wu became an overnight sensation and went on to an acclaimed career; Obama tapped him again for her red 2013 ball gown. But the first was “still the best experience of my life,” Wu told Vogue.
Cameras capture those moments — and then, for most, the party is over. Anita McBride, who was chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush, attended a couple balls in the 1980s — and that was enough.
“I was never one for navigating the cold, middle-of-winter nights, going to a big ballroom to stand for hours and then lose your coat at the coat checks,” she says. “But I do remember the excitement and energy of people coming from all over the country to be in D.C. and attend the celebrations. The smaller pre-inaugural parties that went on for days leading up to the big event were more fun and easier to see people — and it was really fun to be with your friends who worked really hard for your guy to win.”
For reasons unclear to mere mortals, coat checks are frequently the worst part of any ball. One might assume organizers would anticipate a rush once the president left, but one would be wrong. At Reagan’s 1985 balls, women left wearing someone else’s minks. One of George H.W. Bush’s 1989 balls ended with what was called “the Bastille Day coat check.” And the 1997 ball at the Omni Shoreham hotel had a crowd of revelers screaming, “We want our coats!” according to an eyewitness. Chaos ensued, police were called, and many went home with the wrong coat — or no coat.
Still: “If Joe had an inaugural ball, we’d go,” McSweeny says. “I’d be dancing on my tiptoes.”
“And leaving early,” adds his wife.