Getting down to business with Clinton

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The Independent Online
IN THIS country you soon get used to the 'invitations' that arrive daily in the post but that soon reveal themselves as junk mail- shots offering 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunities either to spend a fortune or, more occasionally, to win one.

Last week, though, we received the invitation that many in this town would die for. Just too late to be stood on the mantelpiece for our Christmas guests to gasp over, this was no scam or fake but a genuine invitation - to nothing less than the Presidential Inaugural Ball on 20 January to celebrate the swearing in of William Jefferson Clinton (whatever happened to plain Bill?). But wait, what are all these other bits of paper in the envelope?

Even the solemn business of inaugurations, it seems, is not above the American instinct for transacting business. The second piece of card carried the financial small print. 'This invitation entitles you to apply for the right to attend the ball at a cost of dollars 125 ( pounds 82) per ticket,' it began. 'Places will be allotted on a first-come, first- served basis.' Rather deflated, we sent off a cheque fast.

Next out of the envelope was a small folded leaflet, entitled 'The 52nd Presidential Inaugural Commemoratives', printed under a classy looking inaugural seal. This was the junk mail bit - a mini- brochure of Clinton memorabilia we might want to buy by mail order, courtesy of a 24-hour, toll- free number. The proceeds, it says, will go towards the dollars 20m bill for the inauguration events.

If not quite tacky, the selection is not exactly inspiring either. The 'Official Bronze Medallion' - yours for dollars 35 - bears a head-and- shoulders portrait of William Jefferson that looks as if his jaw has been struck from underneath by a tent-peg mallet. There is a glass Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a bell with the inaugural seal on it (allow 14 weeks for delivery) - dollars 48 - and, inevitably, a tie-pin and cufflink set - dollars 25.

The merchandising of mementos by the official inauguration committee has been taken to new lengths by the opening also of a special 'commemoratives' shop in a posh shopping street off Connecticut Avenue not far from the White House.

It was a fund-raising idea, not perpetrated before, that is paying off. Security guards are forced to limit access to the shop to 50 at a time, and the queue to get in regulary stretches two blocks down the road. But there is not much here to lift the spirits. The most expensive item - dollars 350 - is a mighty knuckle-duster of a gold ring with the same squashed Clinton bust.

For a bit less you can buy a gold saxophone lapel pin. Popular with some is an opportunity to have your photograph printed on a pillow case, between the images, awake, of Mr Clinton and Al Gore. (Most takers opt to face Al - something a sex symbol - rather than pudgy Bill.)

And then, of course, there are the legions of private entrepreneurs hoping to make a buck or few from the inaugural happenings. They range from the hotels to the hair dressing salons, caterers and companies renting out tents and stretch limousines. For the five days of celebrations, there is reportedly neither a hotel room nor a square foot of canvas not spoken for.

Most ubiquitous, though, will be the street vendors with their buttons, tea-shirts, baseball caps and mugs. Their work begins this morning, when they must queue at the city offices for one of the coveted 2,000 licences authorising them to set up along the route of the inauguration parade.

For Eric Bruck, who was doing a reasonable trade in Clinton buttons outside the White House yesterday, securing such a permit is pivotal. 'I'm going to get to the place where they give out one-day licences between 3am and 4am,' he said with determination and dollar signs in his eyes.

(Photograph omitted)

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