In a 14-paragraph Style section front-pager today headlined "Ceremony is a civic ritual for all of us," the Washington Post's Sally Quinn waxed philosophical about how we as Americans need the pomp and circumstance of the quadrennial presidential inaugural ceremonies to unite us as Americans and swell our hearts with civic pride, regardless of who is president. "[T]his is America's chance to show the world what democracy looks like," Quinn insisted, dismissing the complaint of a "young colleague" of hers who asked her, "[W]hy bother to have a second inauguration" instead of "just get[ting] sworn in quietly" in a private ceremony.
Of course, on January 20, 2005, Quinn sounded a very different and quite sour note when it came to how President George W. Bush was to kick off his second term (emphasis mine):
Most afternoons in Yemen, the men gather for social occasions and political discussions. They chew the fresh leaves of a plant called khat. The leaves are a mild stimulant and the men store them in their cheeks as they talk. Though they may be armed with machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles and crescent-shaped swords, there is never any fighting at these events. The purpose is to bond, negotiate power relationships, share information, make policy decisions and explore solutions to particularly divisive issues. These are called "khat chews."
Here's what we need in Washington: more khat chews.
Here's what we don't need: more inaugural balls.
In this administration, the idea of getting together socially with colleagues, political adversaries and even members of the president's own party seems to be regarded, as Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales has said of the Geneva Conventions, as "quaint" and "obsolete." Many in Washington's diplomatic and social circles have concluded that President Bush and those around him have no interest in meeting new people, exchanging ideas with those who differ with them, reaching out to the community in which they live, or, through the embassies, to the larger world.
Now comes the inauguration. Suddenly Sept. 11 and the war are no longer inhibiting factors. Nine inaugural balls are scheduled, plus three candlelight dinners, a week of parading, partying and socializing, all for the big donors, at a cost of more than $40 million. This as American troops and Iraqis are dying daily and the death toll from the Asian tsunami continues to rise.
President Bush missed an opportunity to make a statement and to change the image of the United States abroad. This is his second inauguration, after all. Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't have a parade or inaugural ball during his final inauguration, in 1945, during World War II.
The president could have had one party for close friends, family and those who have been the most valuable to the campaign. He could have asked those big corporations and fat cats who made donations to the inauguration to donate instead to tsunami relief efforts or to support American troops. I'll bet most Americans would have celebrated the president for downsizing this hugely expensive and glittering social event.
The president has it backward. He eschews the kind of meaningful entertaining that reaches out and makes connections, and embraces the kind that speaks only to those who are already on his side.
Fast forward eight years to Obama's second inaugural, you know, the one where the president is breaking his pledge to forbid corporate donations to inaugural festivities. Quinn, however, seems to have no problem with all the expense now, nor with the fact that the pricey shindigs are going to be enjoyable only to partisan Democrats. Indeed, Quinn turns to an event planner to justify those occasions as a much-needed reward for hard-working Obama campaign staffers and volunteers (emphasis mine):
What about the money, though? In these troubled times, should so much be spent on something that may seem frivolous to some? The inaugural committee changed course and allowed corporations to buy packages of $1 million. The Washington package includes two tickets to a benefactors’ reception, an invitation to a Finance Committee “Road Ahead” meeting, two tickets to the children’s concert, two tickets to the co-chairs’ reception and four tickets to a candlelight reception, two reserved bleacher sets for the inaugural parade and four tickets to the inaugural ball. Whew!
Then there’s the money spent for the security, for the grandstands, for the sound systems, the decorations, etc. Wouldn’t that be better spent paying down the debt? I don’t think so.
“The inaugural is one of the most ceremonial functions our country performs,” says Carolyn Peachey of the event company Campbell Peachey. “They’re actually being very circumspect in their spending this time,” she says. “They’re only having two official inaugural balls. People in this town forget that those people in Iowa and Kansas have been in the streets getting out the vote and they want to come here and celebrate. And if John Doe wants to spend $1 million on his package, that’s his choice.. . . It may look to us like ‘been there, done that,’ but for any president it’s an important occasion. They could have lost!”
But it's not just Obama backers who need the ceremony of the inauguration and the concomitant balls, parades and the like. No, we, the American people as a whole need the ceremony or else we'd be "cheated" out of something important (emphasis mine):
Rituals, celebrations and traditions are what hold people and communities together, whether it be tribes in the wilderness or the British with their monarchy. An inauguration is that kind of ritual. It makes us feel proud to be Americans, it builds our morale, it inspires our patriotism. If Obama simply had a small swearing-in at the White House, as he will at noon on Sunday, as prescribed by law, we would feel cheated. We want to see the flags wave and the bands play, the parades march along and the leader of the free world standing before our Capitol dome. It tells us we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It erases, for a short time anyway, the bitterness and hostility of the campaign. It brings into perspective all that Americans have fought and died for, all the good that we stand for. It makes us believe we are the greatest country in the world, that we can and will survive anything and be even stronger than before. As corny as it sounds, it is our one big shining moment every four years that we should cherish each time it happens and be glad to be a part of it.
“Being president of the United States is part of the most elite club in the world,” [historian and journalist Jon] Meacham said. “Being a second-term president is being the most elite within the most-elite club. It’s their last clean shot, the last time they have the ears of the country and the world. It’s a moment to let it roll. Why not?”