The Presidential Inaugural Committee could see this one coming a mile away: How do you swear in and celebrate a reelected George W. Bush at a time of war, with so many Americans (and others) dying in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The Asian tsunami, with its own mounting and unfathomable human toll, only adds another layer of "how can we put on our party shoes at a time like this?" Certainly, the argument continues, the $40 million price tag for inaugural festivities would be better spent on equipment for US troops and relief aid for Asia. "This is no time for Sousa and fireworks and red-white-and-blue cocktails," retired Washington lawyer Bernard Ries writes in the Jan. 9 Washington Post. "Some future inaugural, perhaps."
It's probably safe to say that the loudest voices of complaint don't come from people who voted for President Bush. It's also evident that the president's inaugural team, which optimistically began planning last summer, long ago thought beyond the obvious answer to the inauguration-in-wartime conundrum - which is that anyone who pulls off the rare feat of winning a US presidential election deserves a party or two.
The theme of the inauguration, "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service," and the Commander-in-Chief ball - a celebration to which only members of the military on their way to or from Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, are invited - are designed to demonstrate recognition that this is no ordinary time.
In addition, this being the first presidential inauguration since Sept. 11, 2001, the heightened security on the streets of Washington provides a visual reminder that the war on terror could return to American soil at any moment. Downtown businesses report the tightest security ever for a presidential inauguration. Roadblocks will be erected and pedestrians screened blocks away from Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade route. As a result, some businesses are scaling back plans for their own inaugural festivities.
Still, Washington - or at least the winning party - always likes an excuse to hold a party. So there will be no shortage of furs and cowboy boots during the four-day extravaganza, which starts Jan. 18 with a "Saluting Those Who Serve" event at the downtown sports arena and ends on Jan. 21 with a prayer service at the National Cathedral. The president is to be inaugurated at noon on Jan. 20 on the Capitol steps by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and the inaugural parade will make its usual trek down Pennsylvania Avenue.
That night, nine balls - including separate events for Ohio and Florida, the most crucial electoral battlegrounds - will keep Washington caterers and limo drivers busy. "Inaugurations are awfully important symbolically," says longtime Washington hand Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institution. "They're a celebration of a democratic society and a democratic process. So how each president celebrates is really more a product of the president than of the times."
Is this really the worst of times? Mr. Hess asks, noting that inaugurals have gone on during times of economic depression and world war. "Those who come to town to celebrate are, of course, those who are satisfied with the outcome of the election," he adds, "and maybe those who don't come to town write letters to the editor saying, 'Aren't these times too grim and too dangerous for this much celebration?' "
There may be more letter-writing than usual, at a time when political polarization is as sharp as ever and some partisans continue to believe that even Bush's reelection wasn't completely clean and clear. While the official inaugural committee puts the finishing touches on its plans, so too inaugural protesters are painting signs and arguing with local authorities over where exactly they may express their unhappiness.
Bush detractors point out that there are infinite ways to mark an inaugural - and that, in their view, when a president is reelected, perhaps a bit of scaling back is in order. President Clinton spent less on his second inaugural than on his first. By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached his fourth term, in the midst of World War II, he marked the occasion with "a short speech at the White House, a buffet luncheon featuring chicken salad and pound cake - and that was it," writes Mr. Ries.
Still, every inaugural provides a unique window into the president it honors. And so, as the second President Bush's second term heads for the starting gate, it will at least provide another clue into how he intends to lead these next four years.