On the Money Trail: Inauguration Perks Go To the Rich

VIP-seating at the "We Are One" concert among the benefits for big donors.

January 19, 2009, 10:45 AM

Jan. 19, 2009— -- President-elect Barack Obama billed his inauguration an event "for all Americans." But in the nation's capital this long weekend, wealthy visitors are finding themselves a bit more equal -- and warmer -- than others.

Most Americans here to see President-elect Obama make history crammed onto buses and trains, slept on floors and fought crowds and cold. But the wealthiest Americans coming to see the event are enjoying all the perks their money and power ever warranted.

For CEOs and stars arriving by private jet, local airports have shut down entire runways to serve as parking lots for their planes. Officials are prepared to handle hundreds of private aircraft for the long weekend.

Limousine companies have been busily shuttling the somebodies around town in style. Shirlington Limousine's Chris Baker says he has seen a spike in business for this inauguration, as he has for the past five. (Democrats seem to be more last-minute than Republicans, he said. "The GOP has much more advance, prior planning.")

Watch live coverage of the Inauguration all day Tuesday beginning with "Good Morning America" at 7 a.m. ET and go to the Inauguration Guide for all of ABC News' coverage details.

Despite the recession, the big money's sleeping easy in D.C. While many other visitors feel lucky to have a room in a suburban budget hotel or a spot on a friend's floor, the wealthy snapped up rooms in the capital's best downtown hotels weeks in advance. The Four Seasons Georgetown (up to $75,000 for a minimum five-night stay), the Ritz-Carlton (up to $60,000 for a minimum five-night stay) and other top hotels say they have been booked for weeks, even months.

The Four Seasons is using the inauguration to introduce its new Royal Suite – a 4,000-square-foot, "bullet-resistant" suite featuring a landscaped terrace, exercise room, library and dining room. A hotel spokeswoman confirmed a guest had booked the suite for the inauguration, but declined to share the guest's name.

The Ritz-Carlton sold a "Politically Correct" package for $50,000, which includes four nights in one of the hotel's suites; two hard-to-come-by seats at the inaugural parade; two tickets to an inaugural ball; a luxury hybrid vehicle with chauffeur on call 24 hours a day; a ball gown and tuxedo from Saks Fifth Avenue; a private in-suite dinner for two at the hotel's restaurant, and more, including a special, inauguration-themed pendant of gold, diamonds, rubies and sapphires valued at $8,000.

iPod Shuffles with Obama's Favorite Songs

Even the lesser rich get their perks: The Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown is giving all of its guests Democrat-blue iPod Shuffles with Obama's favorite songs. (If guests can't figure out how to operate the device, they can call the hotel's "iPod butler" for assistance.)

While hundreds of thousands of Americans spent hours in the cold to enjoy the "We Are One" inaugural concert Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, a clutch of Obama's top donors could watch from a heated tent near the performers, courtesy of the president-elect's Inaugural Committee.

Visitors who hadn't raised hundreds of thousands of dollars couldn't get closer to the performance. "Excuse me! You got tickets? If you don't have tickets, you have to go to 'General Population,'" shouted a guard at an entrance near the memorial, gesturing with her arms to turn around and head back away from the show.

The concert was supposed to be part of "the people's party," said Shawn Paterniti, who had come with his wife Mia from Columbia, Md., to see the show. "But still, you have the VIPs who want their front-row seats. So I guess they get their tickets no one knows about," he said, as he and his wife headed to join the "general population," far away from the performances.

"It seems odd to have a VIP section for a concert about unity," quipped the local blog DCist.com. The blogger, Kriston Capps, suggested a new name for the event: "We Are One, but Some Are More One Than Others."

On Tuesday, millions are expected to brave the weather on the National Mall to be a part of Obama's inaugural parade and swearing-in. Meanwhile, businesses and law firms with offices along the parade route are inviting moneyed clients and lawmakers to view the parade from warmth and catered comfort. And of course the inaugural committee handed out fistfuls of tickets to both events to its high-rolling financial backers. It also gave out 10 tickets to other Americans through an essay-writing contest.

The real inaugural partying happens in the evenings, in lush ballrooms and well-appointed homes. Corporations, unions and interest groups plow tens of thousands of dollars into lavish inaugural balls and parties, while the city's power brokers throw invitation-only soirees in private homes.

Visitors without connections may scrounge to buy a $150 ticket to a state ball and feel a small part of history; meanwhile CEOs, media personalities and major campaign donors hop from private party to ball to private party.

Garnering RSVP's for the most elite parties should be easy, but some hosts aren't above resorting to friendly bribery: At least one sent invitations to potential guests accompanied by specially-engraved bottles of champagne.

"There are lobbyist-sponsored and corporate sponsored parties all over Washington during the week," says Criag Holman of the Congressional watchdog group Public Citizen, who believes the events can be used to improperly influence politicians.

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