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Wartime Inaugurations Are All About Tone

John Tierney, The New York Times, 1/16/05

Inaugurations are always balancing acts: part coronation, part celebration of democracy, part touchdown dance in the end zone. But they become even trickier during times of war, particularly when television images of dancers in black tie can be instantly juxtaposed with soldiers in body armor.

President Bush, like most of his wartime predecessors, is not halting the inaugural partying, but this year's planners are striving for a solemn mood. The inaugural events, with the theme of ''Celebrating Freedom and Honoring Service,'' will begin Tuesday with a tribute to the military. After Mr. Bush takes the oath on Thursday, there will be a ''Commander-in-Chief Ball'' that evening for 2,000 troops who have either served in Iraq or Afghanistan or are headed there. Separate gestures are being made by corporate sponsors like Amgen, a biotechnology firm, which is assigning all its inaugural tickets to employees serving in the National Guard.

''Our tone throughout the inaugural events will show gratitude toward those who protect the ideals that make our nation so great,'' said Jeanne L. Phillips, the chairwoman of the inaugural committee, which seeks to raise $30 million to $40 million through ticket sales and private donations to pay for the events.

The organizers expect 55,000 people at the nine inaugural balls on Thursday evening and 500,000 spectators at the parade that afternoon from the Capitol to the White House. There will also be a rock concert on Tuesday, candlelit dinners on Wednesday and a concluding prayer service on Friday morning.

Some critics say spending so much on these parties seems ill-timed both because of the Iraq war and the tsunami catastrophe in Asia. Anthony D. Weiner, a Democratic congressman preparing to run for mayor of New York, sent President Bush a letter on Tuesday suggesting that the millions in inaugural funds be sent to the troops in Iraq.

''Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted -- if not canceled -- in wartime,'' Mr. Weiner wrote, noting that in 1945 Franklin D. Roosevelt limited the celebration to a cold luncheon at the White House.

But that subdued inauguration was partly due to Roosevelt's failing health and was not the norm during other wars, said Paul F. Boller Jr., a historian at Texas Christian University and the author of ''Presidential Inaugurations.'' From the War of 1812 through Vietnam, presidents have generally let the parties go on while also acknowledging the soldiers' hardships.

James Madison, who held the first inaugural ball in 1809, held another during the War of 1812 after giving an angry Inaugural Address denouncing the British. In 1865, after Lincoln gave his famous address promising to bind the nation's wounds and care for Civil War soldiers' orphans and widows, he shook hands with 6,000 people at a White House reception that turned so rowdy the police were summoned to stop people from carrying off silverware, china and pieces of the curtains.

Dwight D. Eisenhower originally requested a simple inaugural in 1953, during the Korean War, but it turned into ''the biggest, flashiest, most expensive and impressive Inauguration party of them all,'' according to a description in The New York Times. The parade featured an Alaskan dog team, three elephants and a float depicting Mr. Eisenhower playing golf. The new president smiled in the reviewing stand when he was lassoed by a California cowboy, but was later said to be irritated.

In 1969, when Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated during the Vietnam War, there were six inaugural balls along with what The Times called the tightest security in history and the first large protest ever held at an inauguration. Mr. Nixon impressed many Democrats with his conciliatory speech promising bipartisanship at home and peace abroad, but during the parade some protesters chanted pro-Vietcong slogans and hurled rocks and beer cans at Mr. Nixon's limousine.

In retrospect, the ''hundreds of long-haired young people'' protesting the Nixon inauguration sound like a small, disorganized force compared with the antiwar groups expected for the ''counterinauguration'' events this week. These groups are organizing rallies, marches, a ''die-in'' and boycotts of workplaces and stores on Thursday to protest the Iraq war and the cost of the inauguration.

Michael K. Deaver, an aide to Ronald Reagan who was chairman of the 1985 inauguration, said the complaints about this year's extravaganza sounded familiar.

''You're always criticized for spending money, because every inaugural is more expensive than the last one,'' Mr. Deaver said. ''There are a lot of people who worked hard on the campaign and want to celebrate, and they should be allowed to. At the same time, tone is very important -- the tone of what's going on in the world, what sacrifices Americans are making. I would hope the president's message is going to reflect the mood of the country.''

If past speeches are any guide, Mr. Bush can be expected to give a somber speech that will praise America and ask for God's help while offering few if any specific policies and absolutely no jokes. Professor Boller, who has forced himself to read every inaugural speech (''I deserve a medal,'' he said), cannot point to a single instance of humor, or at least not intentional humor.

''Martin Van Buren got a big laugh inadvertently,'' Professor Boller said, alluding to an awkward sentence in his 1837 address. After noting that ''the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth,'' Van Buren said that he contemplated with ''grateful reverence that memorable event,'' meaning the Revolution but sounding to the crowd as if he revered his own birth.

David Frum, a speechwriter for Mr. Bush during his first term, said that he expected Thursday's speech to be simpler than the one four years ago. ''Second inaugurals tend to be shorter and more businesslike: here's what we've done, here's where we are, here's what remains to be done,'' Mr. Frum said. ''The country wants some indication of how much sacrifice in international affairs he's going to be asking. Does the war continue? Does he broaden it or find a way to wind it down?''

Mr. Frum said that the war and the tsunami catastrophe were not reasons to scale back the inaugural, and noted that Bill Clinton's inaugurals were held while conflict was raging in Bosnia and hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees were suffering. One of Mr. Clinton's former aides, Paul Begala, also defended next week's festivities.

''Eight weeks ago, I participated in an enormous celebration of the Clinton presidency,'' Mr. Begala said, referring to the opening of the Clinton library in Arkansas. ''There were 30,000 people, rock stars, movie stars. Nobody said it was unseemly to do that during wartime. Why? Because people understood that we weren't just celebrating one man's presidency. We were celebrating the American presidency, and it's the same thing with the inauguration.''

To some extent, the criticism of inaugural extravagance reflects the longstanding concern about turning the president into royalty. Complaints that George Washington had ''monarchical'' pretensions prompted him to consider beginning his second term of office with a private swearing-in ceremony at home. He ultimately took the oath in the Senate chamber, but limited his second inaugural address to four sentences.

Some of his successors also tried scaling back the ceremonies. There were no inaugural balls for Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and 1917, and none for succeeding presidents until 1933, when one was held at the depths of the Depression for Roosevelt. But there were no balls to start his later terms, and in 1945 he dispensed with the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol as well as the parade.

''Roosevelt was the only one who ever took the oath at the White House,'' Professor Boller said. ''His health had something to do with it, but so did his concern that you shouldn't be having gaiety in Washington when there was wartime austerity in the rest of the country.''

Roosevelt proposed a buffet luncheon with chicken a la king, and then the White House's famously frugal housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, decided even that was too lavish. She served cold chicken salad, rolls without butter, poundcake and coffee. Roosevelt, who was not feeling well, got through the occasion by sending his son James to his room to smuggle him a tumbler of bourbon.