WASHINGTON – Starry-eyed Maryland Republicans packed into the D.C. Armory this weekend to celebrate the inauguration of President Bush with thousands of fellow party members from the District and 14 other states.
While some party-goers worried beforehand that Maryland’s Republicans might “feel lost” in the cavernous building, many of those interviewed Saturday were philosophical about the venue and happy to be there for what they described as a historic event.
“Inspirational” was how Marilee Giebel of Darnestown described the day’s events, including the ball. “You really feel Americanized during an inauguration. I think everyone should do it at least once.”
If anyone was upset by the site, all appeared to be forgiven when Bush and his wife Laura made an appearance at 9:15 p.m. The new president named every state in the hall and thanked the party faithful in the crowd, which was expected to top 9,000, before taking a short dance turn with the new first lady.
As the Bushes waltzed, some admirers positively swooned.
“Aren’t they cute?” one woman asked her friend.
“Look at those eyebrows,” her friend responded.
“Oh, all these Republicans, it feels so good in here,” rhapsodized one Virginian. “I went to a Democratic fund raiser. It was awful — the people had an entirely different feel to them.”
When Maryland Democrats celebrated President Clinton’s second inaugural four years ago, they paid $150 to paw through bowls of pretzels and potato chips at the sumptuous Omni Shoreham hotel in Northwest Washington. Dinner was extra.
The state’s Republicans may not have been at the Shoreham on Saturday, but for $125 they got a clear path to the ball — on a red carpet, no less — and an array of substantial hors d’oeuvres including vegetable crudite, ham sandwiches, pasta salad and layered cheese dip.
The entertainment included a swing band called the Night Coach Orchestra and a variety band known as The Fabulous Fantoms, both of which were visible from nearly any point in the ballroom.
The crowd was dressed elegantly, in tuxes and gowns. There was satin and sequins and lots of mink.
There were also some local variations. College Republican Brendan Fahey, 21, from Baltimore showed his support for the Baltimore Ravens by donning a bright purple tie and cummerbund. Another woman was seen circulating through the hall with a stuffed raven on her head.
Yvonne Taylor, an independent from Greenbelt, volunteered at the event as much for the fashion as for the history.
“Part of it’s the moment in history — and the other is you get to look at people, and you get to feel pretty. I mean, how often do you get to wear a ball gown?” she asked.
A cash bar provided red and white wine and other cocktails in little plastic tumblers decorated with stars and stripes. Navy streamers hung from the ceiling and nearly all the armory’s unsightly elements, except for a section of the bleachers, were cloaked in heavy blue drapery.
“I’d probably prefer to come again if it were held someplace other than the armory,” said John Bates, a Bethesda resident who served as legal adviser during George W. Bush’s transition. “I think the bleachers are interesting.”
Maryland Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele was looking forward to the ball, but joked beforehand about the armory, a well-used hall in the shadow of RFK Stadium, far removed from the glitzy hotels downtown.
“It’s not the best site in Washington — it’s an armory for God’s sake,” said Steele of the hall best known for its role as home to the D.C. National Guard and host of the circus.
“It’s not the Hilton — in terms of atmosphere it can be a little challenging,” Steele said before the party.
But Dankner explained that the state’s Republican loyalists don’t anticipate red-carpet treatment at an inaugural event.
“You know, Maryland did not carry for Bush. So we don’t always expect to get treatment like that,” she said.
If it’s any solace to Maryland’s GOP, they shared the armory with Republican stronghold states like Virginia and South Carolina.
Despite occasional gripes, many Marylanders agreed the bash deserved rave reviews. And some credited their own party for its success.
“Republicans always plan better balls — everyone always says that — and always have more balloons at the conventions,” said Richard Ambrose of Baltimore, whose wife, Nicolee, is president of the Baltimore Area Young Republicans.