“So why bother to have a second inauguration?” a young colleague asks. “It’s too expensive. It’s alienating to the losing team. It’s always cold. You already know the man. We’ve already done it once. Why can’t he just get sworn in quietly like he’s going to do on Sunday and then give a State of the Union speech later?”
As we approach the second Barack Obama inauguration, those questions are being asked around the city. The young man makes some good points. Why do we bother?
We bother because the second inauguration is as important as the first. Certainly it would be hard to top President Obama’s first inauguration. He was the first black president ever to be elected. That will never happen again. But he’s also the first black president to be reelected. On some level, the state of the economy, the fact that we are in a war, the rancor of this past campaign and his detractors on both sides, this is huge.
More important, though, this is America’s chance to show the world what democracy looks like.
“The assumption is that the only purpose is to welcome a new president,” historian Michael Beschloss says. “But there are very few unifying moments in America, and this is one of the most important. We get a glimpse of the president’s priorities, not only in the words he says, but the people he’s chosen to participate. You get a lot of information you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
There is a sense that Washington is a bit jaded by inaugurations. We see them every four years and come to regard them with a nonchalance that isn’t felt in the rest of the country. We see traffic jams and tourists and bad weather and the same old parades and the endless inaugural balls. We talk, inauguration after inauguration, about how horrible the balls are, how freezing cold and impossible to get to. How there’s no place to check your coat and no place to get a drink. How your clothes and shoes get destroyed in the crush and that it is wise to wear combat boots instead of evening shoes. And then, how you get a five-minute glimpse of the president and first lady before they are rushed to the next ball by their handlers. And forget parking.
These things are all true. But those who come from out of town don’t see it that way. They are thrilled to be part of a community of democracy that brings us together once every four years.
“It’s a classic Washington bit of solipsism to think it’s all rigmarole,” says historian Jon Meacham, author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” “But that rigmarole means a lot to the high school band from out of town. Washington becomes the people’s city. It’s a real grass-roots core. It’s a civic ritual. It’s not really about Washington or even about the president. It’s once in a lifetime for people who come to Washington for it, more than for people in Washington.”
It was George H.W. Bush, who, Meacham reminds us, said at his inauguration, “we meet on democracy’s front porch.”
What about the money, though? In these troubled times, should so much be spent on something that may seem frivolous to some? The inaugural committee changed course and allowed corporations to buy packages of $1 million. The Washington package includes two tickets to a benefactors’ reception, an invitation to a Finance Committee “Road Ahead” meeting, two tickets to the children’s concert, two tickets to the co-chairs’ reception and four tickets to a candlelight reception, two reserved bleacher sets for the inaugural parade and four tickets to the inaugural ball. Whew!
Then there’s the money spent for the security, for the grandstands, for the sound systems, the decorations, etc. Wouldn’t that be better spent paying down the debt? I don’t think so.
“The inaugural is one of the most ceremonial functions our country performs,” says Carolyn Peachey of the event company Campbell Peachey. “They’re actually being very circumspect in their spending this time,” she says. “They’re only having two official inaugural balls. People in this town forget that those people in Iowa and Kansas have been in the streets getting out the vote and they want to come here and celebrate. And if John Doe wants to spend $1 million on his package, that’s his choice. . . . It may look to us like ‘been there, done that,’ but for any president it’s an important occasion. They could have lost!”
Rituals, celebrations and traditions are what hold people and communities together, whether it be tribes in the wilderness or the British with their monarchy. An inauguration is that kind of ritual. It makes us feel proud to be Americans, it builds our morale, it inspires our patriotism. If Obama simply had a small swearing-in at the White House, as he will at noon on Sunday, as prescribed by law, we would feel cheated. We want to see the flags wave and the bands play, the parades march along and the leader of the free world standing before our Capitol dome. It tells us we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It erases, for a short time anyway, the bitterness and hostility of the campaign. It brings into perspective all that Americans have fought and died for, all the good that we stand for. It makes us believe we are the greatest country in the world, that we can and will survive anything and be even stronger than before. As corny as it sounds, it is our one big shining moment every four years that we should cherish each time it happens and be glad to be a part of it.
“Being president of the United States is part of the most elite club in the world,” Meacham said. “Being a second-term president is being the most elite within the most-elite club. It’s their last clean shot, the last time they have the ears of the country and the world. It’s a moment to let it roll. Why not?”