Tuesday, January 20, 2009



A man polishes glass near to the podium as final preparations are made at the U.S. Capitol on the morning … "They said this day would never come."

That's what President-elect Barack Obama said when he surprised a lot of people by winning the Iowa caucus. And that goes double for the inauguration the nation is about to witness. Whether you're planning to brave the crowds (and cold) or watch the festivities from home, here are a few things to look out for:

1. Will Obama deliver (again)?

It's no secret that Obama is known for his eloquent speeches. Perhaps unknowingly, he essentially kicked off his '08 campaign with a keynote speech at John Kerry's 2004 convention. During the Democratic primary, Obama's speech on race, addressing controversial remarks by pastor Jeremiah Wright, is now widely noted as a turning point for his campaign. Even after he wowed massive crowds in Germany, people wondered if he would be able to carry Denver's Invesco Field during the convention. By most accounts, he did. That's why rumors about Obama's inaugural address began to surface as early as October. Once again, there's a lot riding on this speech. AP sums it up:

"The great task of Barack Obama is to be a John F. Kennedy or to be a Ronald Reagan — truly inspire the American people and in a few succinct, memorable lines, lay out for the country your new vision for America," says American University political historian Allan J. Lichtman.


If history is any judge, we've yet to see the president-elect disappoint on the day of the big test. Even Obama's 27-year-old speechwriter Jon Favreau has become a minor celebrity. And if all this pressure ever feels a bit heavy-handed, Obama can enjoy the fact that there's also a good deal of light-hearted betting on his speech: Which past president will get the first inaugural shout-out? Will he say "banana"?

2. They built it, but will they come?

Following a historic nomination, you'd expect historic crowds. And if predictions come true, D.C. is about to become one packed house. While crowd estimates once peaked at 4 to 5 million, the Washington Post found that an internal report stated that the Secret Service is expecting anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million. (The record for the biggest crowd belongs to Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw 1.2 million in 1965.)

But numbers may continue to dwindle. According to FOXNews:

The Pennsylvania-based Red Lion Bus Company has canceled nearly all of its trips to Washington on inaugural week because passengers are steadily backing out of their reservations, the company's owner told FOXNews.com.

"Most passengers are canceling because they're not able to get tickets to any place where you could really see anything," said company owner Dennis Warner.

And some folks are planning on skipping town entirely. Politico reports that many Republicans will be taking well-timed "vacations" or gathering for their own "inaugural" events: One Republican lawyer is inviting friends to Las Vegas for an "Inaugural in Exile."

3. On the ball

While much has been made about the fashion choices of the Obamas, let's hope they are fully decked out on the 20th — there are no less than 10 official balls. Sure, it's the dresses we're all really paying attention to here, but as MSNBC reports, there's never a shortage of action:

"It's like a massive high school prom, is the only way I can describe it, in terms of the crush of people and the level of sophistication," said Sheila Tate, who was press secretary to Nancy Reagan. "It's just packed."

Tate has witnessed two coat-check riots at Republican balls. It happened at President Ronald Reagan's ball in 1985, when many women left in minks not their own, and again in 1989 for the first President George Bush at a ball with what became known as "The Bastille Day Coat Check."

But back to those dresses. If you know your first lady history, see if you can guess who wore what from past events. There's no doubt everyone will be watching to see what Michelle chooses — there are plenty of sketches for her to chose from. But more than a few people have asked: Is it crass to be so glitzy when the nation is knee-deep in a recession? Heck no, "Project Runway" guru Tim Gunn told the AP:

"'This is a time to celebrate. This is a great moment. Do not dress down. Do not wear the Washington uniform,'" said Tim Gunn, a native Washingtonian and Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne, Inc.

4. Christian controversy?

Obama vowed to be a president who would listen to all sides of an argument. And if his choices for inaugural prayers are any indication, he will be. Gay-rights activists were enraged when he chose conservative evangelical minister Rick Warren, who had made controversial statements about gay relationships, to deliver the invocation.

Then, Obama asked openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson to say a prayer at a pre-inauguration event at the Lincoln Memorial, which, as Huffington Post points out, wound up not being broadcast on HBO.

Was Obama smartly playing both sides? Robert King at The Indianapolis Star sums it up by asking, "What's up with Obama and his radioactive pastors?"

And when confronted with a backlash from gays on the choice of Warren for an inaugural prayer, Obama didn't just go and choose a bishop sympathetic to gay causes, or a gay clergy from a denomination with no battles over gays, he chose the most controversial gay clergyman in the land. He bought top shelf radioactivity.... The next four years should be anything but dull.

5. The ringleader

81-year-old Charlie Brotman will be a familiar face on a day that's full of change. He has been the announcer for 13 inauguration parades, starting in 1957 for Eisenhower's second term. He's often quite a hoot: Brotman got in trouble with the Secret Service for sorta, kinda, not really asking George W. Bush to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals opening game. AP adds:

After all, he's the announcer who got the crowd, including the VIPs, to do the "wave" while waiting for late-arriving Bill Clinton in 1997.

And Brotman doesn't take his job lightly. He told USA Today:

"People are standing. They are freezing, and they may have been there for an hour or two, so I try to create some entertainment," he said. "It's as though these people are coming over to my house. I want them to have a nice time and a good memory."

Sounds like he's got something good up his sleeve for this year.

And as an honorary sixth, you know you'd be a fool to miss Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. So don't miss out.

- Sarah Parsons