First in line no guarantee for inaugural tickets

November 16, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
So your member of Congress has declared a first-come, first-served policy on handing out hard-to-get tickets to Barack Obama's presidential swearing-in. Sounds fair enough. But in a town where "yes" can mean "no" and the definition of "is" has been rhetorically spun, "first" does not necessarily mean No. 1 in line.

Even the most egalitarian members of Congress have family members, friends, political contributors and others clamoring for what are, right now, the most sought-after 240,000 free tickets in the world. Lawmakers are not required to disclose the recipients so the list of those who will get some of the 200 to 500 tickets per office might well begin before the average person gets in line.

Dan Glickman does not need the audacity of hope to score these tickets. The former agriculture secretary and current president of the Motion Picture Association of America is entitled to two tickets as a former member of Congress; he served nine terms, in fact.

But Glickman also rang up his home-state senator to secure more. He will get the additional tickets, according to the man who was on the other end of the line.

"We'll try to work with him and help him out if we can," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said in a telephone interview. "He's been a friend for a long time."

Said Glickman's spokesman, Seth Oster, in an e-mail: "Dan is trying to help out some everyday people who are excited about this election and eager to see the swearing-in." Oster said the intended recipients are Glickman's former constituents, but he would not say whether they are friends or family members, nor how many people will benefit from Glickman's advocacy.

It's hard to blame anyone for pulling what strings they can, given the overwhelming demand for tickets and the historic significance of the first black chief executive.

Thousands upon thousands of people have requested the tickets from members of Congress, forcing some lawmakers to tell constituents to stop calling. And those are just requests to be admitted somewhere within four blocks of the Capitol when Obama raises his right hand and takes the oath of office.

West of the Capitol complex, the unticketed masses will gather the length of the National Mall with next to no chance of seeing Obama sworn in with their own eyes. Jumbotrons are expected to relay the images.

More than a million people are expected, quite possibly more than the record 1.2 million people who attended Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration in 1965.

Think Woodstock, multiplied twice. Or the masses spread across London for Princess Diana's funeral procession.

Tickets, then, might seem like a good idea. But some lawmakers aren't even taking requests anymore.

"Special Alert!" blares a message in red on the Web page of the District of Columbia's delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. "Inauguration tickets not Available. Please do not call or email."

Even in districts far from Washington, the demand is overwhelming.

"There are no guarantees that you will receive a ticket by submitting your request," warns Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, on her Web page.

"Unfortunately, anyone calling with requests at this point would have no chance to be granted tickets," Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said Thursday.

Even within the space reserved for the ticketed, there is a hierarchy. About 1,600 of the 240,000 people permitted closest to the podium will be Washington power: the incoming and outgoing presidents, vice presidents, their families, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, federal judges and Medal of Honor winners, said Carole Florman, spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

The demand for the rest of the tickets has created a nightmare for members of Congress, according to numerous interviews with lawmakers and their aides.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., whose state is home to much of federal Washington's work force, received more than 26,000 requests for tickets by week's end. He asked the inaugural committee to consider giving his office more. Norton has suggested adding ceremonies to be held in the public stadiums around town.

Money may not buy the sought-after tickets despite the best efforts of entrepreneurs who have tried to sell or auction tickets they don't have and may never get.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is writing legislation to punish anyone who tries to sell the tickets. Ebay, Inc., announced Thursday it will not allow anyone to sell inaugural tickets on its site.

The inauguration tickets, which bear multiple security codes, remain locked away until the week before the festivities. Then they will be given to lawmakers to dole out in whatever way they choose, without having to disclose the recipients. The committee says in-person pickup will be required.

For those without tickets, lawmakers offer polite advice, which translates roughly to: Go away.

"Congressman Dent suggests that constituents who are unable to acquire tickets to the swearing-in, but still interested in this historic occasion, consider other Inauguration Day events."

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On the Web:

Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies: http://inaugural.senate.gov/index.cfm


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