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Diplomacy in Action

Media Coverage of Official Events of the 57th Presidential Inauguration

Ben Labolt, Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC); and Theo Le Compte, Director, Events and Ceremonies, PIC
Washington, DC
January 16, 2013

2:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. At this time also, we’d like to welcome our journalists at our New York Foreign Press Center, who are watching this briefing via DVC. Today, we have with us Ben Labolt from the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Senior Advisor, and Theo LeCompte, who is the director of Events and Ceremonies. And they’ll talk about the media coverage of official events of the 57th Presidential Inauguration.


MR. LABOLT: Thanks. Thanks for having us today. Good afternoon, everybody. I’m Ben Labolt; I’m one of the senior advisors for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Thanks for coming out this afternoon.

An inauguration is less a celebration of the President and the presidency than it is a tribute to America’s citizens and the vitality of our democracy. President Reagan once said, “In the eyes of many in the world, this every four year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” This inauguration in particular is a celebration of the American people. In good times and moments of great challenge, it’s our people who’ve seen us through. Time and again, President Obama has been inspired by the determination, grit, and resilience of the American people as we’ve faced challenges over the past four years.

That’s why the theme of this inauguration is “Our People, Our Future.” It’s a reminder that, as the President has said, our destinies are not written for us, but by us. That’s why from service projects to social media, we’ve been finding new ways to engage all Americans in the hard work of shaping our future. While many of the weekend’s events will take place in Washington, D.C., this will truly be a nationwide celebration. You’ll see that reflected in the National Day of Service on Saturday, when Americans from all 50 states will participate not only at the Service Summit here in the nation’s capital, but also in their towns and communities across the country. This is a tradition that President Obama and the First Lady established four years ago and that we hope we will continue at future inaugural celebrations.

During inauguration weekend, you’ll also see signs of the progress that we’ve made over the past four years. At the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball that was established by President Bush, there are going to be servicemen and women who are back from Iraq, home for good, and others who are now able to serve openly in the military. This year, we’ll host the second Children’s Inaugural Concert, another tradition established by the President and the First Lady that we hope will carry on to future inaugurations. This year, it’s an extension of the First Lady and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, and it will be dedicated to the children of military families. And Vice President Biden will be sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who’s the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice to sit on the court.

The inauguration is a chance to reflect on how we got here and to think about where we’re going. Throughout this country’s history, people of different backgrounds and political parties have worked together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. This moment is no different. To walk you through some more of the specifics of the program, let me now turn it over to Theo LeCompte, who’s in charge of our Inaugural events and ceremonies. Theo?

MR. LECOMPTE: Thank you, Ben, and thank you to the Foreign Press Centers for hosting us today. Again, my name is Theo LeCompte. I’m the Director of Events and Ceremonies, and I’m just going to walk through the schedule of official events that start this weekend for the inauguration.

Three days from now, on Saturday, is the – as Ben mentioned – is the National Day of Service. Here in Washington, on the National Mall, between 12th and 14th Streets, will be the Service Summit. So that’s from 9:30 to 5:00 that day, will be thousands of Americans out on the Mall, learning about how they can serve in their communities. There will be entertainment, speaking program elements. All of that will be happening throughout the day out on the National Mall.

Later that evening, over at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, will be the Kids’ Inaugural Concert. This is a particular event that is very important to the First Lady and Dr. Biden. We have some great entertainers who are going to be performing, including Nick Cannon and Katy Perry, and that’s happening at 6 o’clock p.m. over at the Washington Convention Center.

The next day, Sunday, January 20th, first thing in the morning, Vice President Biden will take the oath of office at the Naval Observatory at 8:15, and then he and the President will head over to Arlington National Ceremony to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, which is something they did four years ago. That’s at 9 o’clock. And then at – just before noon, the President, as required by the Constitution, will take the official oath of office in the Blue Room in the White House. As the Constitution calls for the oath to be taken on January 20th, but by tradition Congress moves the ceremonies to Monday the 21st, so – but the President still has to take the oath and will do so in the White House on Sunday the 20th.

Later that evening, there is a candlelight celebration and reception over at the National Building Museum that will be attended by the President and the First Lady, the Vice President and the Second Lady. And that’s later on that evening at 8:00 p.m.

On Monday morning, this will look – Monday is full of a lot of the traditional inaugural ceremonies that you’re used to seeing from inaugurations over time. We start in the morning at 8:45 with a church service at St. John’s Church, across the street from the White House, with members of the Cabinet, attended, again, by the President, the First Lady, the Vice President, and other officials. Then the President will host members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for tea at the White House before they all head up to the Capitol for the official swearing-in ceremony, which will happen on the west front of the Capitol, starting at 11:30.

Following that, the President will be hosted by members of Congress in Statuary Hall for a luncheon inside the Capitol. After that, he’ll head out to the east steps of the Capitol to review troops and then be escorted down Pennsylvania Avenue for the Inaugural parade. Once the President gets over to the White House, he’ll take his seat in the presidential reviewing stand, and then get to review the rest of the parade as it goes by. And we expect the rest of the parade to take approximately two hours and wrap up by 5:30 that evening.

There’s some downtime, and then later that evening are the official Presidential Inaugural balls over at the Washington Convention Center. As many of you may have read already, we – this year we only have two official Inaugural balls, both at the Washington Convention Center. One is the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball, as Ben mentioned, a tradition started by President Bush that President Obama is honored to continue and will host mostly enlisted members of the military, honoring their service to our country.

The other ball that is happening is the Inaugural Ball, and it’s a celebration for all Americans, again, at the Washington Convention Center, happening in the exhibit halls over there, thousands of Americans joining us to celebrate the President’s inauguration. The President will appear at both of those events that evening, as well as the Vice President.

The next morning is the final event of our Inaugural period, and that is the National Prayer Service up at Washington National Cathedral, starting at 10:30 – 10:30 to noon, attended by the President and other – the Vice President and other officials. And that completes our Inaugural period and our Inaugural celebrations, and then the President gets back to work.

And with that, I think Ben or I are open to take any of your questions.

MODERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please raise your hand, wait until you get the mike, and state your name and your media organization.


QUESTION: Thank you. Ruben Barrera with the Mexican news agency Notimex. I would like to ask you, how much will these ceremonies cost? And how much money will be absorbed by private corporate sponsors? And there is a difference between the cost in this ceremony and the last ceremony four years ago?

MR. LABOLT: Certainly. We’ve been in a process of raising those funds over the past couple of months. Inaugural ceremonies really have a private pool of funds and a public pool of funds to put together the events themselves to sponsor – for example, the National Day of Service – across the country and to pay the staff we have in 50 states who are setting up those events. Those are all private funds that have to be raised by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

This year, we’re accepting donations from both individuals and corporations. This is really a civic event, and we’re raising funds like any civic organization would, whether you’re an art museum or the Presidential Inaugural Committee. It’s a nonpartisan event.

And so we’ve received contributions from both individuals and organizations. They’re all disclosed on the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s website. And we’ll continue raising those funds until the very end.

The budget for this Inaugural celebration is similar to the one four years ago, regardless of the crowd size that you have on the Mall. That will all be disclosed about 90 days after the event. The final dollar amount raised will be disclosed. But regardless of how many people you have on the Mall, it costs the same amount of money to open up the Mall.

We’ve done some things this year to make the logistics a little bit easier. All of the balls will be taking place in the Washington Convention Center, which would limit some of the security needs that you had around town last time. You had to shut down the Metro all over the place. But it’s a similar budget to the one we had four years ago.

MODERATOR: Can we go to New York, please?

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Nadia from South Africa, Eyewitness News. I just wanted to find out, the other balls that are taking place – I’m thinking specifically of the Ambassador’s Ball, for example – does the President stop at all of them? I mean, how much time does he usually dedicate if he does? And what usually happens with those other balls? Thanks.

MR. LABOLT: The plan is – Theo, correct me if I’m incorrect – is for the President to just stop by those on Monday, those two official balls. There were more balls sponsored by the Inaugural Committee four years ago. This – the decision that we made was basically to build a bigger ball in one place, so that the talent is concentrated in one area. If you’re looking for other people attending the ball, you’re not going to be shut down in some other part of town, that you’ll be able to see your friends and the people you were looking for in that space.

But there are two official balls sponsored by the Inaugural Committee, the one open to the general public and the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball for service members. And those are the balls that the President and the First Lady will be attending.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. My name is Kathleen Gomes. I’m a correspondent for a Portuguese newspaper called Publico. Follow-up to the first question about the corporate donations, I realize this is the first time you’re doing this at an inauguration. I was just wondering, why was there that decision to do that? Was it because there was a realization that there – you couldn’t reach the amount of individual donations that there were four years ago? And who makes that call? Is it the President himself? Thank you.

MR. LABOLT: Sure. Well, this Inaugural Committee didn’t do it four years ago, but it’s actually been pretty standard for inaugural committees over the years to accept corporate contributions. In our view, this is like fundraising for any other civic event, just like a museum might raise their funds. It’s a nonpartisan event. It’s a celebration of the nation. If you go down the list of the companies that have contributed, it’s not like they’ve gotten something specific from the Administration. There are many companies who’ve contributed who’ve disagreed with the Administration on a number of issues.

There’s no doubt that we did come off of an expensive campaign, the most expensive in history, during challenging economic times. And so that has to be a consideration as well. But I’d say in terms of our budget and our fundraising so far, that we’re on track, that we’ve got more work to do, but that contributions have come in at a steady pace every week, and they’ve come in from both individuals and corporations.

QUESTION: Christoff von Marschall from the German daily Der Taggesspiegel. Could you elaborate a little bit about the symbolics, which special groups in society are more or less presented? It seems to me that the first Inauguration, 2009, the public very much concentrated on African Americans. This time, it seems much more Latinos, whether you look at the cultural events in the days before, whether you look at who is writing the poem for the Inauguration, so there seem to be a shift from African Americans to Latinos a little bit.

And the same seems to be true with homosexuals. Last time, 2009, Rick Warren, though there were protests from the gay community, still gave the benediction. This time, we had a different development. I hope you can a little bit explain what’s happening and how the American society has shifted over the four years.

MR. LABOLT: Sure. Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly how we look at it. I think we did set out the goal of making sure that the Inaugural activities were representative of the nation as a whole. And I think if you look at the performers, if you look at the parade participants, if you look at those speaking at the ceremonies, it does reflect the diverse nature of the nation. In terms of the interest we had from all corners across the country and participating in this event, we had 2,800 applicants to participate in the parade. It’s a parade where all 50 states are represented, but obviously we’ve only got two hours and we couldn’t accommodate everyone.

The President, in terms of the historic nature of having the first African American president in office – one of the symbolic moments during the Inaugural weekend will be the President being sworn in holding two Bibles. One is Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, and the other is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible. So obviously there’s a significant amount of symbolism around that. But I think collectively, if you look at the participants and the performers, really it represents the diverse nature and the increasingly diverse nature of the country.

MODERATOR: New York, please. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, Marí Ramírez from the newspaper El Mundo. If you could elaborate a bit more on the last point that you made about the Bibles, how President Obama chose this time to use again Abraham Lincoln Bible and also Martin Luther King. And secondly, about the budget. What share of public and private funds? If you don’t have the data for this year, how was it four years ago? Thank you.

MR. LABOLT: Theo may have something to add on the Bibles. That’s the background that I have. I believe the budget four years ago for the private funds was somewhere between 50 and 60 million dollars. The public funds are largely dedicated to security costs. And those are the best numbers we have available. But again, we won’t know our final number until fundraising is completed this weekend for the Inaugural activities this time around.

MR. LECOMPTE: Yeah. And on the Bibles, I think that the symbolism of those Bibles are important. The President said in a video the other day that Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln are two people whose shoulders he’s standing on when he goes to take the inauguration. But in addition to those two Bibles, which are being used at the official ceremony on Monday, I do also want to point out that the President is taking the oath on the Robinson family Bible on Sunday in the ceremony at the White House. So really you’re seeing the continuation of the rich inaugural traditions we have in that President Obama is using a family Bible on Sunday, but then also standing on the traditions of others from the past on Monday at the Capitol.

QUESTION: Hi. Chen Weihua, China Daily. Yeah, should we expect a major speech, or any speech at all, from President Obama at his Sunday swearing, or that will be reserved for Monday only?

MR. LABOLT: No. The Sunday swearing in will be simply the oath of office. There will be no speech.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Charlotte Harder. I work for Danish Broadcasting. I have two questions. One is about the theme for the inauguration, because I read somewhere that it was like, “Believe in America’s Future,” but now it’s sounded a bit different when you presented it. And the other thing I would like to have you to tell a little bit about the number of guests that will be sitting on the podium where Obama will take the oath, and who is invited for that, how many, who chose the guests, et cetera. Thank you.

MR. LABOLT: Sure. Let me start with the theme and then I’ll turn it over to Theo on the seating. In terms of the theme, it is “Our People. Our Future.” I think that theme was chosen because this is really a celebration of the nation, not just a tribute to the President and the presidency. And one of the major themes you’ll see throughout the weekend is participation from all corners of the country and a nod to the challenges that we’ve overcome through their efforts over the past four years.

MR. LECOMPTE: And in terms of the seating, I think that there’s various levels of seating and there’s thousands of folks who were invited to view the proceedings both by the Presidential Inaugural Committee and by the JASIC – the Joint Congressional Committee for Inaugural Ceremonies.

In terms of the platform itself, this is a ceremony that’s about government and about transition of power. So principally, the President is invited to the Capitol by members of Congress. So members of Congress will be, of course, seated up there on the platform. And then the members of Congress allow the President to invite the Cabinet and other senior government officials along with him to sit on the platform. So in terms of the immediate seating around the ceremony, it’s really focused on those senior government officials and elected officials, who are the core of our country’s government.

MODERATOR: New York, please, the next question.

QUESTION: Hi. Alexey Osipov from (inaudible) Russian Novostai. Two questions. So what’s the dress code for pooled press for inauguration balls?

MR. LECOMPTE: The dress code for pooled press for the balls? Just a dark business suit is fine. You don’t have to wear a black tie. I will be forced to, unfortunately, but you’re fine to go without a tuxedo.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on the invitations, because I was very much asked from home to ask who of celebrities will be there?

MR. LECOMPTE: Well, we’ve made a number of announcements already about various surrogates and entertainers who will be performing at various Inaugural events. Honestly, I don’t have the details on which of those performers will be attending the ceremony itself. A lot of them have rehearsals and other commitments throughout their time here in Washington, but I would point you to the public announcements that have been made about performers that will be in town.

MODERATOR: New York, do you have another question?

QUESTION: Yes. Secondly, as a media house, we got a lot of gifts from our readers, says the greeting cards, toys, CDs, for President Obama and his family. So what should I do with these gifts? Can I bring or send them to inauguration committee, because all of them are addressed to the Obama family?

MR. LECOMPTE: (Laughter.) I think we can get back to you. I’m not sure I – I’m sure that we appreciate them, but we’ll look into that and get back to you.

QUESTION: Hello. Simon Carswell. I work with The Irish Times in Dublin. I wanted to ask about the budget. You spoke about the budget remaining roughly the same as the last time. But the concerns that were raised about public safety issues last time around, is this going to mean that any precautions that are taken this time, is that going to lead to an increase in the funds allocated from public funds?

And also, could I ask as well, is what precautions are being taken to prevent a repeat of the public safety concerns that happened last time? Thanks.

MR. LABOLT: Sure. Well, I think for all security questions, both the Secret Service and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Celebrations are responsible for that function and the best place to go. But again, I think we foresee a very similar budget and expenditure to what we had the last time around.

In terms of official events around town, one of the reasons there will be – the balls will be concentrated into one space so that it doesn’t require shutting down 10 different points in town, yet we can still accommodate nearly the same amount of people. So in some ways I think we’ve gotten a little bit smarter about how to handle it this time around and it shouldn’t have a significant impact on the budget.

QUESTION: Tao Zhang from China, Caixin Media. I just wondered, could you explain a little bit about Cabinet members, I mean, where they will be there, I mean, on Sunday, Monday. And for some of the posts, I mean, President Obama has not nominated someone yet. So – and also for – such as Treasury, they have nominated and they have got the current one, so will they both be at the ceremony? Thanks.

MR. LECOMPTE: I think that the important thing to note is that members of the cabinet will participate in the official ceremonies throughout the day. As to the particular situation, in any individual case, I think it depends on the individual case. The case you mentioned, I think Secretary Geithner is still in office beyond next Monday. But if the sitting Secretary is still there, then that person would attend, but it really depends on the individual case.

MODERATOR: New York, next question, please.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m Pincas Jawetz, Sustainable Development Media. I understand that the sites of these two official balls, there are other events that are also called balls that are being organized in Washington. For instance, the environmental people, it’s a nonpartisan ball. And my question is if members of the Administration will be going to those balls, because those balls mainly are for certain sectors of Washington.

MR. LABOLT: I think there are a lot of organizations and individuals from around the country that are organizing their own events over the weekend and on Monday and into next week. And there are so many going on that we don’t even have a complete picture of which organizations have set those up. I think you’ll see Administration officials concentrated at the official Inaugural events. Those are the ones that we’ve organized. And on our schedule, we only have, on Monday, those two balls. So that would be a decision for the individual to make. I can’t rule out that someone would show up at an outside event.

But in terms of what we’re offering coverage of and where we expect our officials to be concentrated, they’re at those events sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

MODERATOR: Somebody who hasn’t asked, in the back.

QUESTION: Thanks. I’m from Singapore Straits Times. If you’ve answered this question already, please ignore it because I was a little late. I’ve read reports about how this time, things have been scaled down and made more simple. Is there – compared to four years ago – was there a deliberate thinking about keeping the celebrations in line with, like, the economic mood and stuff like that compared to four years ago? Thanks.

MR. LABOLT: Sure, a couple of points. First of all, second presidential inaugurals for reelected presidents have traditionally attracted a smaller crowd, so we’ll be prepared for any scenario, but that’s been the case over the years. I do think that these Inaugural – the Inaugural celebration was built in a way that is very respectful of the times that we’re in. Day one is dedicated to service – serving our neighbors, serving around the country, and it’ll involve participants from all 50 states. That’s actually on a wider scale than it was in 2009, where really it just took place in and around the Washington area. But it’s something that I think takes into account the times that we’re in. Also dedicating the Children’s Inaugural Concert to the children of military families, continuing the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball, I think all of that commemorates the times that we’re in and the challenges that we face.

Some of the logistics we thought made more sense by concentrating them, and I think that’s why we made the decision to move the Inaugural balls so that it’s been spread all around town into one venue. So I think there were multiple considerations that went into putting this year’s event together. Some of that involves larger, more wide-scale events like the National Day of Service. Some of them involve logistical decisions like moving the balls into one space.

MODERATOR: New York, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Marta Dhanis. I’m a broadcast correspondent for Portuguese TV, TVI. My question relates to the people that you’re expecting in D.C. for inauguration this time, and also if this is less or more than four years ago, especially given that it’s a second term. Thank you.

MR. LECOMPTE: I think, as Ben alluded to, we do expect a smaller crowd this time around than four years ago. There were about 2 million people last time around. We are not personally the pick in the numbers game, but there’s been estimates out there from the D.C. Government and others that are significantly smaller than that. So – but we expect an enthusiastic crowd and people who are very excited about the President’s second term. But as is the case with most second inaugurals, we do expect a smaller crowd.

MODERATOR: Any questions? All right. Thank you for coming.

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