How past presidents partiedby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
The inaugural ball has been an American tradition for 200 years. Minnesota Public Radio dug up some history on the past presidents' parties.
In some countries, political change comes in the form of coups and bloodshed. In the Untied States, the transition of power is typically marked by dinner and dancing.
For two centuries, Americans have welcomed their new presidents with inaugural balls. Champlain College professor Willard Randall has made these historical shindigs part of his academic research.
"Probably the most lavish of all would be James Buchanan in 1857," said Randall. "He had 3,000 quarts of champagne, 400 gallons of oysters, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, 16 sides of beef -- the list goes on and on. George W. Bush, his gala ball was the most expensive ever at $40 million."
Of course, celebrations for incoming commanders-in-chief haven't all been so opulent.
The first inaugural ball was held in 1809 to honor the country's fourth president, James Madison. Four-hundred people paid $4 each for an evening of dancing at a Washington hotel.
President Madison said he would have found an evening asleep in bed much more enjoyable. But, despite this founding father's lack of enthusiasm, a tradition had been established.
From then on, citizens expected presidents to launch their terms with inaugural balls.
"We give them to reward the party that wins the election, for one thing," explained Randall. "But also they're to show America's high spirit with a new beginning, I think."
A few of these beginnings were less than auspicious. Take, for example, the 1873 inaugural gala for Ulysses S. Grant.
The ball was held in a temporary structure that lacked heat -- which was unfortunate considering the mercury barely reached 16 degrees. The champagne turned to slush. Violin strings snapped. And the singing canaries brought in for the occasion froze to death in their decorative cages.
Then, says historian Willard Randall, there was Andrew Jackson's gala.
"He was considered the people's president. So people came in carts and wagons. And they came into the White House and stood on the satin upholstered chairs in their muddy boots, and chairs collapsed," said Randall. "They broke the china and they knocked over the waiters with the punch bowls, and fistfights broke out over the food. They had to smuggle Jackson out a window. And they finally got the crowd to leave by putting large tubs of whiskey on the lawn."
The country's more recent inaugural celebrations haven't been quite as boisterous -- millions of dollars worth of security has made sure of that.
But big budgets don't always ensure that everything will go smoothly. In 1989, at George H.W. Bush's ball, guests became so frustrated with the long lines at the coat check, a number of them simply abandoned their outerwear and went home. Eighteen furs were left behind.
For some presidents, one inaugural gala just isn't enough. Dwight Eisenhower attended four official balls. In 1981, Ronald Reagan had eight white-tie affairs. The record is held by Bill Clinton who, in 1997, graced 14 formal galas.
There were, however, heads of state who found all the glitz and glamour to be a huge waste of money.
"Lyndon Baines Johnson probably said it best in 1965," said Randall. "He said, 'Never before have so many people paid so much to dance so little.'"
Presidents like Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson insisted on charity balls. Hoping to set a tone of economic frugality, Warren Harding refused both a ball and a parade.
And Franklin Roosevelt, who served through both a depression and a war, opted for a simple luncheon. On the menu -- cold chicken salad and unfrosted pound cake.
Presidential historian Willard Randall says inaugural balls can be seen as a sacrilege during times of conflict or economic turmoil. But don't expect the country's current problems to get in the way of this year's festivities.
"I don't think Obama could keep the people from celebrating," said Randall. "I don't think anybody will blame anybody for having a big party on this one."
- All Things Considered, 01/16/2009, 5:52 p.m.