WASHINGTON — “Last time, it happened so quickly,” is how Marcia Jackson, wife of Alphonso Jackson, housing and urban development secretary, contrasts this week’s inaugural festivities with those marking the start of President Bush’s first term.
Four years ago, there was barely a month to plan the inauguration, since the election’s outcome wasn’t decided by the Supreme Court until five weeks after Election Day.
This time around, President Bush and his GOP loyalists are unabashedly celebrating the victory and appear undaunted by the bitter cold and phalanx of security across the city, given that it’s the first inauguration since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Two tiers of parties have the capital in a social whirl: the official events thrown by Bush’s out-of-town pals, and private festivities put together by Washington veterans and lobbyists and those who don’t want to brave the lines or crowds. But, reflecting a nation at wartime, the administration has cast the inaugural festivities as a celebration of America’s armed forces as much as of Bush’s reelection.
“People plan on having a good time,” said Jackson, while attending a pre-inaugural party Monday evening at Café Milano, sponsored by General Motors.
The party’s bipartisan hosts were Republicans Abigail Blunt, wife of Roy Blunt, house majority whip; Bush pals Elaine and Ken Cole, and Democrats Debbie Dingell, wife of influential Michigan Rep. John Dingell, and Ann and Lloyd Hand.
Bush family loyalist Jeanne Phillips, chairman of the inaugural, stopped by the party late and looked like she was catching her breath to gird for the week’s list of official events, culminating in tonight’s nine inaugural balls.
But Phillips had something else on her mind: Dallas designer Richard Brooks, who made her inaugural wardrobe on short notice.
“I found out I was chairing the inaugural in December,” said Phillips, who in 1990 postponed her wedding to throw a fund-raiser for the senior Bush’s reelection bid. “My inaugural ballgown is a black beaded chiffon with a wheat silk underlay.”
Standing nearby was First Lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, Andi Ball, who was all smiles, although she said the inaugural is “a very bittersweet time,” since she’s soon to leave her employer after being Bush’s aide de camp for 10 years.
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“It’s very hard to go,” said Ball, whose fond memories include spending the night in Buckingham Palace during a presidential visit.
Also stopping by Milano on Monday was Clay Johnson, Bush’s longtime prep school friend and veteran who has worked in Bush administrations in Texas and Washington. “The president wants to be surrounded by a whole lot of friends from school, from the old days in Texas,” Johnson said of the inaugural festivities as State Department chief of protocol Donald Burnham Ensenat, a fraternity buddy of Bush’s at Yale, also worked the room.
Instead of going to one of Wednesday night’s three candlelight suppers for GOP inaugural donors, where 2,000 are expected at each, Abigail Blunt looked forward to a private party at the Palm Restaurant hosted by Boeing.
“A lot of people don’t want to go to anything that big,” said Blunt, chief lobbyist with Altria Inc., who knows a $1 million inaugural donor who’s also taking a pass.
Other low-key celebrants RSVP’d to Washington hostess Buffy Cafritz’s pre-inaugural supper at the Mandarin Hotel, an event she’s thrown since President Ronald Reagan’s first term and that is always a bipartisan affair.
Earlier Wednesday evening at the hotel, Robert Higdon, executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation, planned to host a pre-inaugural supper for out-of-town pals such as Peggy Noonan, Deborah Norville, Diane Sawyer and Bob Colachello. A party scheduled at the Corcoran Gallery for Bill Frist, senate majority leader and potential GOP presidential candidate in 2008, is also slated for Wednesday night.
Popular Washington GOP hostess Mary Ourisman, among President Bush’s new picks for the board of the Kennedy Center, plans to swing by the Frist party with her husband, Mandy, and said she’s relieved that, with all the private parties this time around, she’s a guest instead of a hostess.
“On Friday, we’re going to Vice President Cheney’s house for lunch, and if I’d given my brunch, I wouldn’t have been able to go,” she said.
Longtime Bush pal Brad Freeman, co-chairman of the inaugural, was enjoying the festivities on both the private and official party circuits, turning up at Café Milano for Monday’s dinner and the next day for a lunch at the restaurant celebrating Bush supporter Terry Lanni, chief executive officer of MGM’s Mirage in Las Vegas. The crowd of inaugural organizers on Wednesday were all honored at Phillips’ lunch at Mellon Auditorium.
By Wednesday, it seemed like inaugural festivities were keeping to schedule, as the President and First Lady were set to make their third public appearance, at an outdoor “Celebration of Freedom” concert on the Ellipse behind the White House.
On Tuesday night, the first couple and daughters Jenna and Barbara attended a concert at the D.C. Armory, where headliners Hilary Duff and JoJo gave abbreviated performances to a crowd of several thousand teens that danced little but applauded raucously.
At the end, the President and First Lady, sporting a rich green Oscar de la Renta suit, made an appearance, while the twins watched from the audience.
“I’m particularly thrilled to be standing on the stage with some of America’s soldiers in the army of compassion,” said President Bush.
Earlier in the day, Bush found time to meet with state Republican National Committee chairmen. Maryland RNC chief John Kane, who hosted a GOP fund-raiser Tuesday night at the Chamber of Commerce, said, “That guy is sharp. He knows every state and how he did” in the fall’s election.
Kane’s guests, with several of the women wearing ankle-length fur coats, trickled in from the cold and traffic gridlock into the vast Chamber building located on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House.
The featured luminaries included the President’s younger sister, Doro Koch, accompanied by her Democratic husband, Bobby, a lobbyist for the California wine industry. Doro Koch wore a navy blue scoopneck chiffon gown with long sleeves and put in a good word for her brother.
“He has a plate of issues he’s dealing with,” she said. “Of course, his main objective is peace in the Middle East.”
— With contributions from Kristi Ellis