“I feel like I’m in the penalty box,” complains Cesar Soriano, a reporter for USA Today, from his perch at the back of the ballroom at the Washington Hilton. Soriano and the rest of the press have been cordoned into a restricted area, maybe 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep, at the Constitution Ball, the first of nine inaugural balls that the president and first lady will visit Thursday night. Soriano says he’s covered several inaugurations, and this is the first ball where his movement has been restricted. “I had to be escorted to take a leak,” he says. “So, while I was there, I interviewed a guy.” The escort “was probably wondering what took me so long.” Once the president leaves (and he hasn’t even arrived yet), Soriano and his compatriots will be liberated from their chains, but until then we’re stuck in the Constitution Ball’s internment camp.
Inaugural balls, if this one was representative, are a lot like wedding receptions. Except instead of the Chicken Dance, they play the national anthem, and there’s bunting instead of flowers. And instead of a DJ, there’s Rich Little. The rest is pretty much the same. People mill about, a few of them do the Electric Slide while others watch, the bar is too crowded, the DJ/Rich Little annoys everyone with bad jokes, and everyone waits expectantly for the bride—er, the president—to arrive.
Rich Little seems to think he’s at the 1984 inauguration. He begins his routine with a Ronald Reagan impersonation and a riff on the war on poverty. (“Do you think the War on Poverty is over? Why, yes, I think it is, and the poor lost.”) Later in the evening he will do George Burns and Johnny Carson. His idea of current material is to announce, during his Burns impersonation, “You know where I got this cigar? From Bill Clinton.”
Fortunately, no one is forced to watch Little’s act for very long, because Bush prides himself on his promptness. He shows up five minutes earlier than scheduled, at 7:40 p.m. The crowd holds hundreds of cameras aloft, and the room flashes as if Sammy Sosa were at the bat. This is what they paid their $150—not counting their $9 martinis, $7 cocktails, $6 beers, $4 sodas, and off the “inaugural merchandise” order form, their $12.95 divot tools, $42.95 crystal paperweights, and $1,190 “medallion collections”—for.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed these festivities as much as I’ve enjoyed them,” Bush says. “I love my wife, Laura, and I’m looking forward to dancing with her. Maybe for the first time in four years.” Bush thanks some assembled dignitaries, and then he and Laura sway back and forth, like two teenagers at homecoming, to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. For 45 seconds. Then Bush turns and extends his hand to the crowd. He and Laura walk up and down the stage. At 7:46, they’re gone.
As soon as the bride hits the door, a large chunk of the crowd starts to grab their coats and walk toward the exits. And the press is freed from its bondage. Thanks to the departure of the Great Liberator.