The Stage is Set

At a college without a football team, you might say politics is GW’s sport – and inauguration its homecoming.

And as the nation’s eyes turn to Washington to see the first black president sworn in next week, GW will celebrate like no other college in the country. After all, it is the reason why many students came to Foggy Bottom – to witness history as it happens.

While hordes may descend on the D.C. area next week to catch a glimpse of the president-elect, GW will actually be welcoming a new neighbor. Some past neighbors, like the Clintons, became friends of the GW administration and avid basketball fans, while others, like Ronald Reagan, were saved by GW Hospital. It’s a relationship unique to Foggy Bottom, and it starts on Jan. 20.

Because of its location and student body, GW has often been able to play a prominent role in inaugurations. In 2001, the University made headlines when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney participated in an inaugural event commemorating veterans in the Smith Center. In 1993, the press activities for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration were held at GW.

And 60 years ago GW was honored to have a float in the inaugural parade for President Harry Truman, an event that will be recreated for the first time on Jan. 20.

Frank Simmons, the GW alumnus who created the school’s 1949 inaugural parade float, said he wrote repeated letters to University presidents after his graduation, advocating the reprisal of a GW parade float. But they all declined until this year.

“I knew long before Obama was elected that 2009 was going to be a historic event,” Simmons said. “I couldn’t see why GW would not have a float, with all of its involvement in national politics.”

The University has had many other ties with presidential inaugurations, some of which stand out in its 188-year history.

There are alumni like Dr. Darrell Crain, a 1932 medical school graduate, who led the official emergency medical staff for inaugural events and was also responsible for the inauguration medals for five U.S. presidents in his position on the Inaugural Medal Committee. His extensive collection of presidential medals can be seen in Gelman Library.

Perhaps students get the most exposure to the inauguration during the Inaugural Ball, an event started in 1993 which is held on inauguration night to honor the newly sworn in president and vice president.

No president or vice president has ever accepted an invitation to attend since its inception in 1993, but that doesn’t mean that recent balls have been without noteworthy guests.

Impersonators dressed as President Bush and former Minnesota Governor and WWF wrestling star Jesse Ventura graced the crowd at the 2001 ball, in addition to a 500-pound hippo ice sculpture. For former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s final ball in 2005 he sported a brown cowboy hat in honor of Bush’s unique style.

The Ball, which has become a GW tradition, was formerly held in the Marvin Center. Due to renovations in 2001, it was moved to the Omni-Shoreham Hotel, where it has remained ever since. Because of the Florida fiasco that delayed the presidential outcome in 2001, GW booked the location just nine days prior to the ball.

This year’s ball is the largest yet, with more than 5,000 guests expected to attend, an indication of the immense excitement Obama’s inauguration has created on one of the most politically-active campuses in the country.

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