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A Wartime Event In a Different Spirit Of Personal Sacrifice

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A34

Sixty years ago this month, Franklin D. Roosevelt held a wartime inauguration to reflect the country's spirit of doing without: no parade, no balls, only a cold lunch after a swearing-in on a White House balcony.

Today, President Bush holds a wartime inauguration with all the trimmings: a parade, reviewing stand and ceremony on the Capitol steps, and nine celebratory balls.

The contrast says much about the current fighting in Iraq and against al Qaeda globally. Except for a tiny minority of Americans, these have been wars without sacrifice and pain on the home front. "We are at war," Bush says. But there are few domestic signs of it -- and that could be a missed opportunity to mobilize the country for good causes.

"For most Americans, the wars on terrorism and in Iraq have been primarily 'spectator' wars, not 'participant' wars," said Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The civic energy and national solidarity that was the one silver lining in the tragedies of 9/11 has been almost entirely dissipated in the subsequent 3 1/2 years. When Americans asked after 9/11, 'What can I do?' the answer was, 'Here's some money back from your taxes; now go spend it.' "

World War II brought rationing, war bonds, victory gardens and scrap drives. In Iraq, by contrast, said Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy, "we're waging war on the cheap, and not asking much either materially or psychologically from the society at large."

Bush has been uncomfortable with the question of sacrifice. Asked a month after the 2001 terrorist attacks about the need for sacrifice, he said: "I think the American people are sacrificing now. I think they're waiting in airport lines longer than they've ever had before."

Earlier this month, Bush took an unusual view of the "ultimate sacrifice" -- a term usually reserved for slain soldiers -- when addressing newly elected members of Congress. "Laura and I know how hard it is on a family to be in the political arena," he said. "It's the ultimate sacrifice, really: sacrifice your privacy. It's a sacrifice of time with your kids."

Presidential inaugurations have often reflected the nation's sense of deprivation and plenty. Woodrow Wilson, president during World War I, canceled the balls for both of his inaugurations, saying they were solemn events. That example persisted through the Depression and World War II.

Inaugurations during the Vietnam War, by contrast, reflected the guns-and-butter sentiment of the day. There were six inaugural balls for Richard M. Nixon in 1969 -- a record at the time -- and five for his inauguration in 1973.

Bush's inaugural committee plans to make its main theme a celebration of the military. This is in character for Bush, who often talks of the sacrifice made by troops overseas, the pain of the wounded and the loss for the families of the nearly 1,400 dead. But domestic deprivation is not on the menu. Jim Bendat, author of a book on inaugurations titled "Democracy's Big Day," said Bush "is not taking the Roosevelt route. He's taking the Nixon route."

Some editorialists have criticized Bush's choice, and some of Bush's opponents hope to make a political issue of the lavish affair. Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.), for example, sent a letter asking Bush to spend the $40 million raised for the inauguration on a bonus for the troops or armor for vehicles in Iraq.

But that is just symbolism, and there are few signs that an American public unaccustomed to war-related sacrifice at home is demanding that the inaugural festivities be curtailed. Indeed, said Stanford's Kennedy, the lack of public civic activity to aid the current Iraq war has not been a problem, in part because the "$11 trillion U.S. economy can wage war at this level without breaking a sweat."

But if war costs and casualties grow, Kennedy wonders whether the public "will be prepared to embrace a spirit of sacrifice at home" in the form of a draft, higher taxes or economic restrictions. "I'd surely bet against it," he said, "which is why one already hears reports of exits ASAP after the end-of-this-month elections."

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