Nobody trusts government numbers anymore. Not even the government.
In doing a story about inauguration crowd sizes for this week’s issue, I spoke with Butch Street, an analyst with the National Park Service.
Street used to be the guy to estimate crowds for big D.C. shindigs, such as inaugurations. He stopped doing that when Congress cut off all the federal funding used for crowd estimation out of the agency’s budget after fallout from the Million Man March.
That action came after the Park Service got flak from Louis Farrakhan for saying that “only” 400,000 folks came to the Mall for the Nation of Islam’s 1995 event. Street was the leader of the team that came up with that figure.
Before talking to him, I’d never heard from anybody behind the Million Man March estimate, and I was fascinated to hear how much faith he has in the science he uses for crowd estimation, and how confident he remains all these years after the brouhaha that his Million Man March number was a good one.
As to whether next week’s inauguration will live up to billing: It can’t. Mayor Adrian Fenty set the bar impossibly high right after Barack Obama‘s election by saying that “3 to 5 million” people might show up.
That many folks won’t be at the fest, of course, and not just because that would give the crowd a toilets-to-people ratio of one-to-1,000.
But after Fenty’s prediction, Obama’s inauguration pretty much has to smash the existing attendance record, or he’ll come away diminished—-bet the rent that a small crowd estimate will lead Fox News’ coverage of the event.
The current crowd mark is held by Lyndon Johnson, who gets credit for bringing 1.2 million to the Mall in 1965.
That number came from police estimates, since this was before the National Park Service developed any crowd-estimating science.
So, would Johnson’s number hold up to any scrutiny, let alone the amount of investigation that went into Street’s Million Man March estimate?
Bob Tissing, an archivist with the LBJ Library in Austin, says that being able to throw out the biggest number in history was important to Johnson at the time. That was a traumatic time in America—-JFK had been gunned down only 14 months earlier, and the civil rights movement was dividing the nation.
“On the same day as his inauguration, over 200 blacks were arrested in Selma just for trying to go through the front door to register to vote,” says Tissing.
And Johnson’s record-breaking number amid all the turmoil gave the nation the appearance of unity, which it might not have really deserved.
So not everybody buys that 1.2 million people really showed up.
“Of all the crowds, that [estimate] gets me the most,” laughs Carole Florman, a spokesperson for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is overseeing Obama’s swearing-in festivities. “Can’t you just see LBJ calling up his buddies all over town and saying, ‘Listen, that crowd looked to be over a million. That was about 1.2 million. Don’tcha think?'”