Only in America

December 15, 2004

DON'T FOCUS on the gold-plated aspirations for President Bush's inaugural festivities. That Republicans are hoping to raise a record $40 million to underwrite them shouldn't distract from the "solemnity" of the event. America is a nation at war, inaugural organizers say, and the events will reflect that. But the very fact that U.S. soldiers are dying in Iraq and going without needed protective equipment should make organizers think twice about the cost and scope of the festivities. Soliciting big donors with $250,000 inaugural packages that feature "exclusive" lunches with Mr. Bush doesn't differ from the enticements used when Democrats planned Bill Clinton's first inaugural.

But Republicans see no reason in this time of war to tamp down efforts to exceed the $40 million spent for Mr. Bush's 2001 inaugural. On the contrary, they make no apologies: Everything is more expensive now.

George W. Bush certainly has something to celebrate - he actually won this election outright. But does he need a gold-plated inaugural when families of Reservists and National Guardsmen serving in Iraq are struggling every day?

Mr. Bush could have set a different tone this year by urging corporate and wealthy patrons to adopt a company of 130 soldiers or donate $250,000 to a relief fund for military families.

To kick off his second term in 1985, President Ronald Reagan opted for a low-key inaugural, focusing more on free festivities for youths than high-end, black-tie affairs. Even President Bill Clinton (who made the Lincoln bedroom available to some big fund-raisers) cut back on special-interest contributions to his second inaugural, albeit after serious questions had been raised about some donors in his first campaign.

For all the efforts to portray presidential inaugurations as all-American celebrations, Robert K. Gray, a co-chair of President Reagan's first inaugural, gave a candid assessment of their relevance when he said, "Inaugurals are big business," and the big money derives from selling television rights to the associated events. He made those comments in 1988, and sadly, the business has only gotten bigger.

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