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Inaugural Excess

This Is the Wrong Time for a Lavish Celebration

By Bernard Ries
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B07

The Presidential Inauguration Committee intends to forge ahead with its resplendent plans for the second Bush inaugural. At the risk of sounding like a Grand Old Party pooper, I'm not thrilled.

What gives me pause is the decision to spend some $40 million-plus at this moment in history. When I first began mulling over this expenditure, I thought it quite unseemly that, at a time when so many Americans and countless Iraqis have been and will be killed and maimed, we should be mounting a spectacle said to celebrate our troops, replete with nine official balls, many unofficial affairs, a youth concert, a parade, a fireworks display, etc. (and, at the Ritz-Carlton, white chocolate cowboy boots). But now, with the appalling misery in Southeast Asia added to the scene, it seems even more obvious that an extravaganza is wholly inappropriate.

(President Bush Takes The Oath Of Office In 2001./Doug Mills -- )

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Previous presidents have chosen to continue the festive inauguration tradition during wartime. Lincoln was one, although he most certainly didn't spend the 1865 equivalent of $40 million. But I prefer the example of moderation set by Franklin Roosevelt in wartime 1945: a short speech at the White House, a buffet luncheon featuring chicken salad and pound cake -- and that was it. No parade, not a single ball. FDR knew something about propriety.

President Bush, of course, has already had a big inaugural party; in 2001 he enjoyed a four-day, $40 million inauguration. How many $40 million fetes is one man entitled to, I wonder, particularly since we're only transitioning from Bush to Bush. Bill Clinton spent less on his second inauguration ($23.7 million) than on his first ($33 million), and that was, moreover, in a very different context: The economy sparkled, Clinton had won a rousing election victory, we weren't at war -- and a sizable portion of the world had not just fallen apart.

In his Christmas Day radio address, Bush admonished Americans: "We have a duty to our fellow citizens, that we are called to love our neighbor just as we would like to be loved ourselves." That sentiment would have been notably served if, on the day after the election, he had announced that his inauguration would be confined to one modest day of celebration and he had urged prospective supporters to redirect their contributions toward charities and the needs of our troops and their families.

Such a gesture could well have caused major inauguration patrons to donate for eleemosynary uses (perhaps with a discreet note so informing the inaugural committee). It most certainly would have suggested the president's sincerity about the importance of a benevolent spirit. And, in thus displaying a modest charitableness instead of what many have perceived as ungenerous arrogance, he might have made a good start on mending the rupture between himself and half the country (and much of the planet).

Our recently elevated pledge of aid to Asia should now be helpful in that respect, as will signals such as lowering our flag for a week, sending Colin Powell to that suffering region and enlisting former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to raise private funds. But these are the sort of boilerplate actions that might be expected in a situation of such horrific dimensions. In a time of great suffering -- in Asia, could we be looking at, ultimately, a half-million or more dead? -- what is required is a sign of true respect and sorrow, of sacrifice of a national symbol, that will acknowledge and honor both our fighting forces and the calamity of the tsunami. The inaugural self-indulgence now planned sends a directly contrary message.

We should substantially curtail the inaugural program. By doing so, we would demonstrate due regard for the needs and sensibilities of our citizens and our world (and put to better use the money to be saved -- District police security costs alone are estimated at $15 million). It isn't too late to act. In 1985 the weather led President Reagan to cancel his parade on the day before the inauguration, thereby disappointing 200 high school bands and equestrian troupes from 50 states. The kids survived.

This is no time for Sousa and fireworks and red-white-and-blue cocktails. Some future inaugural, perhaps.

The writer is a retired Washington lawyer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company