Bush receives Texas-sized welcome to Washington at Black Tie & Boots gala
By Amy Herstek/CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect George W. Bush received a Texas-sized welcome to Washington Friday night at the Black Tie & Boots inaugural gala.
"We're just lucky we got a ticket," an ebullient Bush joked to the packed ballroom. "I am looking forward to tomorrow," he said in his most expansive remarks since he arrived in the nation's capital.
"This is only a temporary job, but what is permanent is what is etched in my heart, and the values on which I was raised -- and those are Texas-sized values."
Bush will be sworn in as the nation's 43rd president at noon EST Saturday. But Friday was a night to celebrate everything Texan. After the president-elect thanked his supporters and the Texas congressional delegation, he proudly displayed his custom-made cowboy boots -- embossed with both the presidential seal and the state of Texas seal.
The patriotic crowd went wild -- more so than when classical pianist Van Cliburne performed "America."
"More than being a Democrat or a Republican, it's about being from Texas," said Beau Greenwood, a Democrat who worked in the Clinton administration and the cousin of gospel singer Lee Greenwood, who performed just after Bush left the stage.
"It's so warm and special, it's something we haven't had for eight years," said Katherine Lynch, a former Texan who now lives in Alexandria. "Thank God we are here again."
It was a sentiment echoed repeatedly throughout the evening. "He doesn't need any advice," Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas advised of Bush. "Be yourself, and do it your way -- and I'll help you."
Post-election victory party
"It's a victory party for our president that he never did get on election night," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the junior Republican senator from Texas. Hutchison hosted the event, which was sponsored by the Texas State Society.
The gala is not one of the "official" inaugural balls -- those will take place Saturday night after the swearing-in ceremony. But Hutchison told CNN she anticipated a "rowdy and outrageous" affair, saying that "no one will leave here without having a good time."
Entertainers from Texas and beyond performed: Lyle Lovett, Asleep at the Wheel, local Austin band Duck Soup, gospel singer Lee Greenwood, Tanya Tucker, the Texas Two Bits (singing, pint-sized twin girls) were slated to perform, among others that included the Kilgore Rangerettes and the Katha Black Dancers.
Once Bush -- a two-term Texas governor, part owner of the Texas rangers, former Midland oilman and son of the most recent president from Texas -- was declared the winner of the protracted presidential election, Black Tie & Boots ballooned from just another unofficial ball to a party where once and future Texans could celebrate one of their own.
Tickets began going for thousands on the eBay auction site -- some congressional staff members were reportedly making thousands of dollars reselling the coveted tickets. The event grew from 6,000 to a seams-bursting 10,000.
Fire marshalls closed down access to the main ballroom around 8:30 p.m. EST, shortly before Bush and wife Laura were slated to appear, along with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne.
While nearly 3,000 attendees strained to get into the main ballroom, ball-goers in the "Spindletop Disco" swayed to the musical stylings of The Beach Boys, who called Hutchison's office and asked if they could play.
Rangers and volunteers
In order to keep things running smoothly, some 160 volunteers consisting of current and former congressional staffers were scattered throughout the hotel. And all 72 of the Texas A&M Ross Volunteers, who serve as the governor's honor guard, were posted at key spots -- including on the arm of Nicole Morgan, the Texas State Society Princess.
"It is such an honor to be here," Morgan said. "Make sure you tell them that I'm the first black Texas State Society princess in 94 years."
Working in two-hour shifts, half of the volunteers deployed as ticket-takers, the other half served as ushers, guides and greeters -- whose primary concern was directing everyone to the main ballroom.
"They really cautioned us about reviewing the tickets for accuracy," said volunteer Shelley Dodd, a Texan who has lived and worked in Washington as the lobbyist for Texas A&M University for close to 15 years.
"The Secret Service insisted that no one would be admitted to the ball unless they pass through the metal detectors, and you can't do that until you show your ticket and pick up your wristband.
Dodd and her husband Quin, an aide to Hutchison, worked the pre-gala dinner with some 400 VIPs. The Dodds served as "recognizers" of the members of Congress, and their job, she explained, was to "make sure they are properly taken care of and escorted to their correct seat."
Among the notables: many of Bush's Cabinet designees, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Robert Duvall, Roger Staubach, Roger and Debbie Clemens, as well as incoming Bush administration officials Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer later said that "it felt great" to give his last press briefing at the Bush-Cheney transition headquarters. Beginning Monday, he will be working out of the White House.
Greeting guests elsewhere were volunteers Tom and Sharon Connor. Tom is a Major in the Marine Corps, and the Connors traveled more than six hours from their home in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, to work at the ball.
Dressed in a silver ball gown, Sharon Connor explained that they initially were trying to buy tickets, and when that proved too difficult, talked to some Washington friends about volunteering.
"We would just be willing to do anything, park cars, shine shoes," she explained. "It worked out and we feel lucky."
"I think with George W. Bush we feel like we can relate to him so much better than we could relate to previous administrations," Connor explained. "I feel like we would have more in common with him if we sat down and talked to him."
Tamales and two-stepping
Virtually every public space in the hotel was transformed into a little bit of Texas. Each room has a theme harkening to the vast geography of the Lone Star State: the Texas Fair, (including a live steer, a roadrunner, a hawk, an armadillo and an alligator); the Lone Star Sports Bar, the Hondo Honky Tonk, the Cotillion Cantina, the Muleshoe Cigar & Martini Bar, the Spindletop Disco, the La Villita Club and the Luckenbach Java Lounge.
Some two-and-a-half tons of beef brisket and 20,000 pounds of shrimp were served -- and everywhere one found standard Texas fare: quesadillas, fajitas and fried jalapenos.
And, true to its name, many of the attendees at Black Tie & Boots wore cowboy hats and boots. For her part, Hutchison wore custom made cowboy boots with her crimson Oscar de la Renta gown. "They match my gown perfectly," she said.
"I just love wearing hats," said one hat-wearing, sequined gown Houston matron. "My husband hates them, but I love them."