WASHINGTON -- Somehow it just seems a bad time to be spending $40 million on an inauguration -- not counting extra millions spent on security -- even if most of it is private money. Is this really the image America needs to be projecting right now?
Perhaps if the world weren't involved in the massive effort of trying to prevent the horrendous tsunami death toll in Asia from tripling or quadrupling and American soldiers weren't desperately trying to bring stability to Iraq, there might be some excuse for the kind of spectacular celebration planned to usher in George W. Bush's second term -- rock and movie stars and all. But that isn't the case, is it?
It seems proper to ask who is going to feel comfortable about spending up to $10,000 for a few days of coronation festivities that pretty much exclude the average American -- millions of whom have been kicking in hard-earned dollars for tsunami victims or the tens of thousands more who begin each morning praying that loved ones in the military make it through another day in a far-off land -- even if there is a special veterans ball to show that the commander in chief understands.
Wouldn't it have been appropriate for the president to declare a moratorium on the usual outpouring of merriment surrounding his swearing-in? Wouldn't it have been far more seemly to ask that money raised for that purpose be added to the huge amount already donated to tsunami relief efforts? What would have been wrong with just a simple inauguration in the Capitol Rotunda followed by a compassionate speech and a few fireworks?
Those are questions someone in the White House and the Inaugural Committee should have been asking before launching what is expected to be the most expensive such affair on record.
War itself should be enough to dampen inauguration activities. Franklin Roosevelt's last inaugural was celebrated with a simple lunch at the White House. But with the addition of a natural disaster of monumental scope, the appearance of insensitivity only worsens when the nation needs to be reaching out. The "party on" message is hardly the one we should be sending as death tolls mount.
To be fair, Americans always have been able to compartmentalize their emotions, to give generously in an outpouring of grief and support while seeking shelter in football stadiums and Times Square galas from such troubling experiences.
Even in two world wars we tried as best as possible to carry on normally. Life must go on, after all --at least unofficially. What makes this different is the official nature of the events; the stamp of government authority that our enemies will cite as the way Americans really are. That isn't true at all, and there is overwhelming evidence that supports our claims that we are the most caring, nurturing society in history.
But this administration should be particularly aware of charges of insensitivity. This is a chief executive who unfairly was accused of not responding quickly enough after the devastation of 9/11 and, last month, when the ocean rolled over coastal areas. Those silly allegations surrounding the seven-minute delay in reaction following the terrorist attacks and the several days of his silence after the tsunami should have been warning enough to inaugural planners that perhaps caution should be exercised in the scope of the celebration.
Bush won a hard-fought re-election campaign. He deserves to have his moment in the sun. And the American people and those around the globe, friends and enemies, deserve to hear an inaugural address that hopefully will set the tone for his next four years and re-establish this nation's commitment to a world united in peace.
That could have been accomplished, however, without the display of extravagance that is now too late to cancel. President Bush is not undignified despite what detractors contend. In the past he has displayed the kind of decency and caring that Americans expect from their chief executives. It would be too bad if over-exuberance in the party honoring him is used to reinforce the claims of his and our enemies.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.