Reading about George Herbert Walker Bush’s passing this week brought back a lot of memories. It was for his inauguration in 1989 that Anne Marie and I were selected to serve on the team of florists chosen to decorate the inaugural events. The Presidential Inaugural Commission had asked the Society of American Florists if it had any members who would give up a week, go to D.C. on their own dime and do the flowers for the inaugural balls. And, of course, if the society could find people to donate the 750,000 stems of flowers that would be needed.
SAF saw this as an opportunity to show how important flowers are for major social events. The TV coverage would be great for the whole floral industry, and PIC had funds for meals and hotels. Volunteers paid their own way to get there. The whole floral industry would benefit from the efforts. Thus this major decoration effort cost nothing to taxpayers. We went for seven days and the work encompassed 10 to 11 hours each day for the volunteers. The work was exhausting, but exciting and gratifying, because it was a piece of history we were part of.
The team was assembled from a list of prominent floral designers, design people active in our industry. Especially those folks who routinely provided $25,000-$75,000 weddings. And one more thing was important: They had to be able to take orders from the folks who had planned it all.
You see, we did not go in with a list of ideas and arrangements we thought we would be making. All the planning was done by an old friend, Tom Powell. As soon as the deal was concluded with PIC, he was commissioned to do the sketching and planning for each of the nine balls, as well as other events. Once the overall look was decided, he and his team then made one of each of the designs, counted the flowers and put together an order from which these arrangements could be made.
They had to order carnations (a lot of red and white ones), nearly 200,000 roses, red tulips, daffodils, blue iris, white hyacinths and a myriad of other flowers to get it all done. Then there was the water-holding foams, preservatives and the 20 or so kinds of greens and the vases to hold the flowers. And then there were the large tropical houseplants, and on and on. No, it was not going to be each florist showing up with his own box of cut flowers and designing what they wanted.
Speaking of that, last week I read an article from an Ohio newspaper in which they interviewed a local florist who had been invited to join the White House Christmas decorating team — something my Mom was invited to do in 1976 and ‘77. It went on to talk about how the florist was creating the arrangements that she wanted to do and making lists of flowers for the White House to buy that would give her an opportunity to showcase her creativity. I do not think that she understands the process that is used for decorating the White House, or for inaugurals. I am wondering what she is now thinking, after the last couple of days of criticism of first lady Melania Trump’s blood-red Christmas tree theme, and if she is still thinking she can be that creative.
Back to 1989: Each of these nine balls would be equivalent to a million-dollar wedding. Anne Marie and I were honored to be there. I can never recall all the things we learned about design and decorating as we associated with some of the great designers of our land.
As it turned out, excepting for a few folks who declined to come back or were asked not to for one reason or another, the team stayed together for the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush inaugurals. A final footnote: In 2008, the Obamas, facing a terrible recession, thought that such opulence might be tough for the public to take and didn’t do what their predecessors did, leaving the floral industry out of the process. The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. did not use the industry, either. I am not sure we will ever return to the old system.