A Less Traditional Take on Inaugural Festivities

Times Staff Writer

With the war in Iraq steadily claiming American lives and the world in mourning over the tsunami disaster, planners of the 55th presidential inauguration face an awkward challenge: how to throw the traditional four-day celebration without appearing to have too much fun.

A few critics -- including a Republican Texas billionaire -- have called for cancellation of everything but the swearing-in because they find it unseemly to spend $40 million on shrimp, spirits, floats and frivolity while American soldiers must scrape together money for phone cards to call home.

But supporters of President Bush are presenting the quadrennial pageant as an opportunity to salute American troops.


The theme is “Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service.” And the result will be a spectacle that pays greater homage to the armed forces than any inaugural in recent memory.

Officials say they will do that without spoiling the revelry that is Washington’s version of the Oscars.

For Bush, whose approval ratings are below 50% as he prepares to lead a divided nation through four more years, the key is to make sure his inaugural message resounds above the merriment.

“You don’t want to be seen as fiddling like Nero while Rome or Mosul or Baghdad is burning. But there is something powerful about having an inauguration that is smooth,” said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and author of “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.”

“The Democrats may be grumbling, and there is all this blue state and red state stuff, but at the end of the day the thought of treason is not even on the American mind,” he said, underscoring the most significant part of Inauguration Day: Unlike citizens in many countries, Americans accept the electoral outcome with no threat of resorting to violence.

“That should not be overlooked,” he said.

But beyond the solemnity of the Capitol ceremonies, partying is still very much on.

Beginning Tuesday, Republicans will hold 10 balls, three candlelight dinners, a presidential gala on the eve of the big day, a fancy brunch for dignitaries, a 1.7-mile-long parade and a youth rock concert hosted by the Bush twins.

The platform for viewing the swearing-in will be bigger than ever, the speakers’ podium higher, the tickets redesigned to prevent counterfeiting. This will be among the most expensive celebration of its kind -- and the most heavily guarded.

For the first inauguration since the Sept. 11 attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has promised to “leave nothing to chance.”

As many as 250,000 spectators will watch the swearing-in, all of them passing through some form of security; 11,000 will take part in the parade. So many cellphones, text messages and wireless cameras will be in use that local bandwidth had to be boosted.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee is still working to raise the $40 million that all of this will cost -- not counting expenses for security, which will be borne by local and federal governments.

And the committee’s greatest selling point is proximity to the president. Seats for the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue go for $125, ball tickets for $150 and a chair at the swearing-in on the Capitol’s east front runs $250.

The higher the price, the greater the access. High-rollers are coming through with the maximum $250,000 donation, earning themselves a lunch and a dinner with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The official swearing-in at noon Thursday is dictated by protocol and visually bipartisan, with ranking members of both parties and former presidents in attendance. After that, it’s mostly a GOP victory fest.

This is a coveted chance for a notoriously stuffy city to sparkle, all the while raking in tourist dollars. And if official Washington is worried about appearing insensitively extravagant, local businesses are not.

The historic Jefferson Hotel is offering a $1-million inaugural package that includes round-the clock limousine service, spa days, his and her gold Presidential Rolex watches, fashions by the couture designer of choice, diamonds from Tiffany and -- in a rare bipartisan impulse -- a side trip to Chicago for a private tour of the exhibition “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.”

For $75,000, the Sofitel Lafayette Square’s “Don’t Mess With Texas” package includes a suite lavishly decorated with yellow roses, and sterling silver spurs engraved with the inaugural logo.

While the administration has little control over the unbridled partying that goes on, the tone of the official events can be a reflection of a president’s style. As others before him inaugurated in times of crisis, Bush walks a fine line between celebrating democracy and indulging in excess.

Inaugural handlers have been forced to justify the expense of merrymaking while the death toll of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds 1,300. The money, albeit privately raised, stands in contrast to the shortage of armor for troops and their vehicles that the Pentagon has struggled with for a year.

“Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted -- if not canceled -- in wartime,” Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.) recently wrote in a letter to his colleagues, noting that $40 million would buy armor for 690 Humvees or provide a $290 bonus for each service member stationed in Iraq.

Even Texas billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and a Bush supporter, suggested publicly that the inaugural balls be canceled and the money donated to tsunami victims in South Asia.

Sensitive to the criticism, inaugural strategists will honor the military in three events. Perhaps the most poignant is the first Commander-in-Chief Ball Thursday night, held exclusively for 2,000 invited military personnel who have served in the war on terrorism.

After the swearing-in, Bush will stand as 400 service members from all branches pass in review, becoming his official escort for a parade that will include 5,000 men and women in uniform.

“This will be an appropriate and solemn celebration of our unique American democracy, but we are very mindful that we are a nation at war, and that will be a component of the inaugural festivities, which should not be prejudged cynically,” said Steve Schmidt, the inaugural committee communications director.

When it comes to inaugural protocol in times of crisis, history is an ambiguous guide. President Franklin D. Roosevelt scaled back his fourth inaugural in 1945 as the war raged and his health failed. His speech was short, and his guests made do with cold chicken salad and plain poundcake. Woodrow Wilson chose to hold no parties at his 1917 inaugural in the midst of World War I. But James Monroe, inaugurated in 1817, three years after the British torched Washington, used the day for a military parade that reminded the nation of its enduring strength, even though the Capitol was still too damaged to occupy.