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H’w’d feels a chill as D.C. heats up

Obama's team under pressure to strike right tone

In the past week, Oprah Winfrey announced plans to do a week’s worth of shows at the Kennedy Center tied to the presidential inauguration. Elvis Costello was unveiled as the headliner at a non-profit’s star-filled inaugural fete. And invites went out for two joint balls featuring Dionne Warwick and Ludacris.

Barack Obama’s inaugural committee has yet to announce any of its official events, but his camp is sure to be mindful of overdoing it. The sight of lavish, exclusive parties populated with stars may not sit well with so many regular Americans hurting. 

With the economic crisis, jobs lost, homes foreclosed and nest eggs dwindling, the pressure will be on Obama’s team to strike just the right tone.

The same may be true for Hollywood. Even as millions of visitors descend on D.C., stars will be flying into scrutiny. It may not be fair to equate them with Detroit automakers winging it in comfort to ask for a bailout, but the sight of media mogul-owned private jets lined up at the region’s airports would be irresistible to the likes of the Drudge Report.

Obama’s entertainment industry supporters have seen this before: At the Democratic National Convention, the candidate kept a safe distance from celebrities, not just because of John McCain’s “Celeb” attack ad but also because of the need to focus on the troubles of the economy. Denver saw a heavy star quotient, but cameras never caught them with the candidate.

Inaugural committee spokesman Josh Earnest has said the event will “acknowledge the severity” of the economy’s troubles.

But in the jubilation after Obama’s victory, there was a sense that his highest-profile supporters no longer had to walk a tightrope in the public sphere. Winfrey declared on her show, “The election is over and I’m unleashed.”

Obama’s team in Los Angeles — including fund-raising consultants Jeremy Bernard and Rufus Gifford and Southern California finance co-chairs Nicole Avant and Charles Rivkin — were quickly inundated with ticket requests.

Beyonce talked of wanting to sing, and Tom Hanks declared that he was so determined to go that “I’ll sit on the Lincoln steps and just watch it from the distance on a Jumbotron.”

He’s not kidding. Tickets are ultra-hard to come by.

Here’s why: Obama’s inaugural committee has been raising money to pay for things like the cost of inaugural balls and entertainment, while the government picks up the tab for things such as the swearing-in ceremony and security. The committee has declared that it will accept no corporate donations or lobbyist money, as has been the case in previous inaugurations, and it is limiting individual contributions to $50,000.

The process of raising this money is complicated by the fact that the tickets to the swearing-in ceremony itself cannot be bought and sold. Plans for the expected array of official inaugural events like concerts and dinners been yet to be announced. So for $50,000, donors are taking it on faith and assurance that they will be well taken care of. After all, the most prized events will be the ones the new president is expected to attend.

But there is much that Obama’s team has no control over — like the crowds. Some estimates are that 4 million people will descend on the city.

John Emerson, chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center and an Obama fund-raiser who plans to attend with his family, says he’s advising attendees to consider flying to New York and shuttling to Washington as direct flights are booked.

As for interest, he says, “I’m getting it both ways. A lot of people are saying, ‘It’s historic. I have to be there.’ But I have heard others who you would think would be going say, ‘It’s going to be too much of a mess.'”

The incoming administration also has little say over the tone of the array of inaugural balls and other celebrations at sites throughout Washington.

Robin Bronk, exec director of the Creative Coalition, says the org “had pretty much everything in place” even before the election. Its event, featuring Costello, will be held at the Harman Center for the Arts and is expected to draw names like Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ashley Judd.

Elsewhere, George Lucas and Sen. Ted Kennedy are being honored by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training’s Bytes and Books Inaugural Ball. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and other orgs are throwing the Out for Equality Ball at the Mayflower Hotel, with a lineup that includes Cyndi Lauper, Rufus Wainwright, Thelma Houston and Melissa Etheridge. And Warwick and Ludacris are atop the list of entertainment of the American Music Inaugural Balls at the Marriott Wardman Park.

MTV’s Be the Change Inaugural Ball, to be shown across its cable and online networks, will feature four or five top musical acts. Exec VP Dave Sirulnick says the net is conscious of the tough environment. With ServiceNation as co-sponsor, it plans to feature remotes from around the country spotlighting volunteers. “Our ball is going to be one that is going to celebrate the involvement of young people in their community.”

Such a balance of seriousness and celebration has quelled criticism in past inaugurals held in the midst of crisis: Even Franklin Roosevelt, coming into office during the depths of the Depression in 1933, threw a ball.

With the crowds expected, the masses will understand, notes Jim Bendat, the author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President.”

“You have millions of people and they are going to want to do more than stand in the snow during the swearing-in and sit in the bleachers during the parade,” he says. “People want to go ahead and have a good time and have a good party and go back to their business.”

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