Politics & Government

Olympia native sweats the details of the inauguration

WASHINGTON -- Jennifer Griffith is planning a formal event for 240,000 people, and with less than a month to go her to-do list is four pages long.

At night, she tosses and turns, worrying about security.

Griffith, who grew up in Olympia, Wash., is in the thick of the planning for the inauguration ceremony where President-elect Barrack Obama will take the oath of office.

As the No. 2 staffer at the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies, Griffith has been working 12-hour days: helping to pick the menu for the inauguration luncheon for a political who's who; designing the inauguration tickets; figuring out how to get Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, lawmakers, diplomats and hundreds of others on and off the platform; and arranging the departure ceremony for President George W. Bush.

"We are responsible for the lawful, peaceful transfer of power," she said.

Not bad for a 36-year-old who moved to Olympia when she was five, graduated from Timberline High School, majored in sociology and French at Gonzaga University and thought when she arrived in Washington, D.C., that she would only be here two years. That was 13 years ago.

"It never dawned on me I would do something like this," she said in an interview.

An estimated 1 million to 4 million people are expected to descend on Washington, D.C., for the inauguration Jan. 20. Most of them will be on the mall, where they will watch the ceremony on huge video screens, or line the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

But Griffith will be concerned about the lucky 240,000 who will be on the Capitol grounds for the swearing in. Well over 1 million people sought tickets for the event from congressional offices. Some offices received 25,000 requests for the few hundred tickets they were allocated.

"It is a historic, momentous event," she said. "Everyone feels this is something no one expected."

In addition to the congressional committee, Obama has his own inauguration committee, while the Capitol Police, the Secret Service, the District of Columbia government, the military, the National Park Service and a handful of other agencies are also involved in the preparations.

"Everyone is cooperating," Griffith said.

From a spartan office in a portable building in the courtyard of the Russell Senate Office Building, Griffith and the rest of the congressional committee are working to make sure things go off without a hitch.

The night before the inauguration, Griffith will sleep in her office. Another staffer suggested they wear sweatshirts that say "56th Presidential Inauguration Slumber Party." There have been 56 actual presidential inaugurations, not including swearing-ins after a president died in office or resigned.

On inauguration day, Griffith will fret about hundreds of details and then help escort Vice President-elect Joe Biden to the platform. Rather than attending an inaugural ball that night, she says she's going home to sleep.

"The day after the election our seven phone lines lit up and it hasn't stopped since," she said.

Just the logistics can be overwhelming. Roughly 1,600 dignitaries and friends of Obama and Biden will be on the inaugural platform; getting them on and off in a timely matter will be a challenge. There are only three entrances to the platform. Griffith said she and her staff have already had three "mini-rehearsals."

Griffith also has monitored the construction of the platform and such other details as the scaffolding that will hold the giant American flags that will provide the backdrop.

She's says she's a detail person.

"I am organized," she said.

Griffith's parents still live in the house she grew up in along the Capitol City Golf Course. In high school, she said she was a pretty typical student, a member of the swim team and the French Club -- but not a member of the student government. She isn't sure why she majored in sociology and French at Gonzaga, but she got the political bug when she earned a masters degree in public policy at George Washington University with an interest in public health.

On the Hill, Griffith started with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and then spent six years on the staff of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., eventually becoming legislative director.

For the past year, Griffith has been deputy staff director of the Senate Rules Committee. The committee's chairman is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is also co-chairman of the congressional inauguration committee.

One thing Griffith can't control as the inauguration approaches is the weather. In late January, Washington, D.C., can be bitterly cold and sometimes snowy. President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration was moved inside because of the weather.

"Sunny, 48 degrees with no wind would be perfect," Griffith said.