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Washington in party mode to celebrate Bush's second inauguration

WASHINGTON—Any presidential inauguration, as all political aficionados know, is a good excuse for a party, and this week Washington—not New York or Los Angeles—is party central.

Nine official inaugural balls are to take place Thursday evening after President Bush is sworn in for a second term, but the entire week is filled with dozens of balls, parties and galas all over town that will feature tons of food, liquor, celebrities and even a touch of glamour.

Once again, the hottest ticket in town is the Texas State Society's Black Tie & Boots extravaganza Wednesday night. The event sold out online in less than an hour: There were 125,000 requests for the 10,000 tickets. Early this week there was still a brisk market for the tickets on eBay, with bidders willing to pay $1,200 and up for two tickets that originally sold for $125 each.

The party, held every inauguration no matter who's elected president, is at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in northwest Washington. This year's headliners include singer Lyle Lovett, and the event has a special cachet because the president and his wife, Laura—Texans, after all—will attend.

That one in particular promises to be a full Texas experience, featuring tacos, tequila and a fountain that spews barbecue sauce for dipping brisket. This party even has livestock: Bevo, the longhorn mascot of the University of Texas, will appear at the Texas Fair & Marketplace held in conjunction with the ball. There also will be steers with saddles for ladies in their slinkiest gowns to sit astride for photos.

Fashionistas are thrilled that Laura Bush is setting the right couture note, with the White House release of sketches of an Oscar de la Renta ice blue and silver embroidered tulle gown for the inaugural balls that the fashion-conscious consider a big improvement over her shapeless red dress in 2001.

And there's excitement in the air over Bush twins Jenna and Barbara, who'll wear some decidedly daring designer dresses during the week's festivities.

Then there's the celebrity quotient, which ranges from `tween idol Hilary Duff, who was to perform at the youth ball that the twins were to host Tuesday, to pop diva Gloria Estefan, high-brow tenor Andrea Bocelli and legendary pianist Van Cliburn. Other celebrities around town include boxing promoter Don King, comedian Ben Stein, actor Dennis Hopper and R&B songstress Macy Gray.

In a bow to the wartime environment, organizers have added a Commander-in-Chief ball to the official roster that will be free for 2,000 uniformed guests who have served in Iraq. There also will be a nonofficial "The Heroes Red, White & Blue Inaugural Ball" late Thursday night after the official balls are over. That party, featuring singer Michael Bolton and TV personality Geraldo Rivera, will host 500 wounded service members and their families.

While everyone is supposed to hew to the inaugural theme, "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service," the subtheme is definitely Texas, where Bush's roots provide as good a reason as any to wear cowboy boots and flashy jewelry and to down margaritas.

Too hokey? Not for this crowd. After 20 years in Washington, public relations consultant Jill Collins hasn't entirely shed her San Antonio upbringing. Come Wednesday night she'll pull on her red, white and blue cowboy boots to complement her navy designer gown and head for Black Tie & Boots. "I wouldn't miss it," Collins said.

Texas rock band ZZ TOP was to play at a party Tuesday night with `70's rocker Ted Nugent. That event honored the Texas governor, Rick Perry. On Thursday night the bearded blues-rock band headlines the "Best Little Ball in D.C.," honoring the new Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman.

Another hot ticket is the Creative Coalition's "Ball After the Ball" on Thursday night, where Hollywood actors will party with Washington lawmakers. The nonpartisan arts-advocacy group wants to make contacts to promote arts education and funding.

"There's a very fine line between Washington, D.C., and Hollywood," said Creative Coalition co-chair Joey Pantoliano, an actor best known for HBO's "The Sopranos." Headliner Macy Gray is a big draw with the Gen X and Y crowd.

Clothes definitely matter, as does jewelry, and all eyes will be on Laura Bush, whose evolving look has won the approval of the fashion set.

"She represents the American woman," said socialite Mercedes Bass, who lives in New York and Fort Worth, Texas, and is also an "Oscar girl" who favors de la Renta's designs.

"They make you feel feminine," Bass said. "They flatter your figure."

The first lady's first inaugural dress, by a Texas designer, didn't draw the same kind of raves. "I hated that dress," said a Washington friend of the first lady's, who shall remain nameless lest she lose her treasured friendship. "From the neck up, she looked beautiful."

Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and author of many books, including "Letitia Baldrige's Guide to New Manners for New Times," said the parties during inauguration week were a "pat on the back" for election workers and a chance to show off.

"People will have a good time staring at each other," she said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050111 INAUG balls

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