President George W. Bush speaks to the crowd at the 55th presidential inauguration, on the West Front of the Capitol.
“So is this, like, the official book, Jeanie?”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was calling to his staff director, Jean Bordewich. They had just walked into the President’s Room, an ornate meeting room just off the Senate floor, where Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was already flipping through the leather-bound, gilded-edged album.
It had been brought to show the six lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies what they were working toward: putting together an event attended by hundreds of thousands to celebrate the 2013 swearing-in of the president of the United States.
Convened by Congress for the first time in 1901, the special panel formed every four years to orchestrate the inaugural celebration on Capitol Hill uses tradition and precedent to cull its membership.
The Senate Rules and Administration chairman always sits at the helm: This year, that’s Schumer.
The Rules and Administration ranking member, now Alexander, is also on board.
The remaining members are the Senate Majority Leader (Nevada Democrat Harry Reid), the Speaker (Ohio Republican John Boehner), the House Majority Leader (Virginia Republican Eric Cantor) and the House Minority Leader (California Democrat Nancy Pelosi).
With a budget of $1.2 million and a cadre of able staffers — including many inauguration veterans — the wheels are now in motion to begin preparations for an event that’s about nine months away.
In Congress’ early involvement in inauguration planning, dating back to 1789, the Senate was exclusively in charge.
But as presidential inaugurations grew from modest affairs to more lavish celebrations, House Members began to grumble that they wanted to play an equal part.
Resentment came to a head in 1897, when House Members learned Senators would receive twice as many tickets to President William McKinley’s inauguration and that the platform would be erected in front of the Senate wing of the Capitol.
Senators insisted they had unique status to advise the president on a spectrum of matters, from nominations to party planning.
Four years later, they gave in, and the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies was born.
The panel’s members stay abreast of the big issues to be confronted in the months leading up to the inauguration, becoming more involved as the big day nears.
“The experience was a little bit like being mayor of San Francisco and planning for the Democratic National Convention in 1984,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the inauguration committee chairwoman for the 2009 event.
This year’s committee members are already making it known they don’t want a repeat of the last inauguration, when record attendance to celebrate the first black president’s swearing-in led to major crowd-control issues and hundreds of ticket-holders being shut out of the festivities.
“We want to avoid what happened four years ago, when a lot of people came to see President Obama and got trapped in the [Third Street] tunnel,” Alexander said.
But, being senior lawmakers, they can’t possibly be involved in the day-to-day decisions that have to be made for the event to take place.
Each committee member designates a staffer to be a liaison between his or her boss and inauguration preparations. They become the eyes and ears of the behind-the-scenes planning.
The chairman’s staff director — this year, Bordewich — becomes the point person.
‘A Full-Time Job’
Bordewich has her work cut out for her — if her predecessor’s experience is any indication.
Howard Gantman, who was Feinstein’s staff director during her tenures as chairwoman of the Rules and Administration Committee and the 2009 inauguration committee, told Roll Call that as the day approached, his workday went from “very early in the morning until very late at night.”
“Many days … [it] was a full-time job,” recalled Gantman, who is now vice president of corporate communications at the Motion Picture Association of America. “As we got closer … my wife took to emailing me updates: We have a young daughter. I would usually get up much earlier than them and get home after everyone was in bed.”
To prepare, Gantman said, he spoke to veterans who had been involved in planning previous inaugurations. He watched footage of past inaugurations and read reports on what went right and what went wrong in years past.
Leading up to the November election, the planning is logistical: bringing together law enforcement officials to set up security parameters and consulting with the Architect of the Capitol to ensure that the infrastructure is ready to withstand heavy foot traffic.
Along the way, Gantman said, he was regularly briefing Feinstein on developments.
After Election Day, the committee coordinates the specifics of the ceremony with input from the president-elect: who will deliver the opening prayers, who will speak, what other performers will be involved and what will be served at the traditional luncheon held in the Capitol after the swearing-in.
Especially as Inauguration Day nears, there’s lots of problem-solving to do. What if it rains and the ceremony has to be brought inside? What if all of the musicians can’t fit on the platform?
Gantman said he had to make a split-second decision during the ceremony itself.
“We were walking down through the Capitol, waiting to go onto the platform with the president, when we were advised that the program was running long and it might be necessary to cut out the poetry and music,” Gantman said. “I sought to talk to Sen. Feinstein, who was standing next to President Obama, but before I could really explain … they flagged us to get in line to go outside, and I just said, ‘We’re keeping the program as is rather than disrupt the whole ceremony.’”
But the pressure that comes along with planning the event had its payoffs.
“I had the honor of leading the president and the inaugural committee through the Capitol and onto the platform,” he said. “And that’s got to be the highlight of my life.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.