Four years ago, the question mark hovering over George W. Bush's inaugural was a matter of legality. An election that hinged on a US Supreme Court decision tarnished at least a modicum of luster from the Inaugural Week festivities that traditionally usher a new president into office. Even so, the Republicans managed to throw themselves a heck of a Texas-sized party, one that signaled with a flourish the end of the Clinton era in Washington.
This time, the question mark over the inaugural is one of propriety. Should Republicans throw a $40 million bash while the country is at war and nations overseas are reeling from an epic natural disaster? Such concerns notwithstanding, Inaugural Week is shaping up to be business as usual inside the Beltway, a rich quadrennial mix of high rollers and high fashion, of exclusive access to party luminaries and popular (if noncontroversial) entertainers who can be expected to play up patriotic themes.
Indeed, the most noteworthy changes in emphasis this year will be on security -- this is the first inaugural after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- as well as a very public salute to US military personnel, especially those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the nine official balls being held Thursday, the only newcomer to the red carpet will be the Commander in Chief Ball at the Convention Center. About 2,000 troops who are either on their way to or are back from the war will be admitted free, and it is widely anticipated that Bush will drop by to express his thanks personally.
A ball sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that supports military families will be held for about 500 wounded military personnel who are being treated at Bethesda naval hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Bush may drop by, too, although no promises have been made.
"How could he not?" said organizer Chris Thompson, executive director of the Citizens Helping
And those are just Thursday's official social events. Festivities kick off today with the "A Salute to Those Who Serve" concert at the MCI Center, emceed by "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer and featuring performances by Gloria Estefan and country singer John Michael Montgomery. The honor-the-military theme will be front and center. Later that evening at The Armory is the "America's Future Rocks Today" youth concert with actress Hilary Duff, Ruben Studdard of "American Idol" fame, the bands 3 Doors Down and Boxcar, and teen singer JoJo. Rapper Kid Rock was reportedly invited, but later dropped, because of protests over his controversial repertoire. The Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are expected to attend.
By tomorrow, the party train will be rolling along in high gear. The GOP chairman's brunch at the Mellon Auditorium precedes a 4 p.m. "Celebration of Freedom" concert on The Ellipse, with performances by The Gatlin Brothers, Temptations, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, and the Radio City Rockettes. Also on Wednesday, Massachusetts VIPs will party with Governor Mitt Romney and members of his administration at a "Tradition of Leadership" reception at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. As was the case four years ago, one of the hottest tickets in town will admit 10-gallon-sized donors and other Friends of George to the "Black Tie & Boots Ball" thrown by the Texas State Society.
Among critics of the inaugural's expense, for which people are paying more than $250,000 for face time with the president, is Texas billionaire Mark Cuban, a Bush supporter and owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks. On his website, Cuban recommended the official balls be canceled and the money saved should go to victims of the tsunamis in south Asia.
Laura Bush has publicly defended the decision to proceed as planned. Speaking to a group of reporters last week, the First Lady cited the inauguration's "symbolic aspect" to the nation, as well its economic importance to Washington, as reasons to carry on as usual. And Bill Clinton said Bush's supporters should celebrate and their parties will not detract from fund-raising for tsunami victims.
To observers such as Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School, maintaining democracy's tradition of pomp and circumstance should outweigh concerns about seeming indifferent to others' issues, even battlefront casualties and more than 150,000 dead from the Indian Ocean earthquake.
"Inaugurals have historically been the occasion for the winning party to celebrate its victory, and more importantly to inaugurate the winner," Pfaltzgraff said. "What's significant is the level of security, which will cost a lot of public money." Still, he adds, "We should not be guilt-ridden about celebrating an important milestone in American democracy."
Thursday evening's lengthy list of unofficial balls and after-parties may reflect the nation's determination to celebrate the new administration, even if it looks a lot like the old one.
Among the other festivities are a gala hosted by the Creative Coalition at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, with music by Macy Gray, and the eNaugural.com Ball at the Wyndham Washington hotel, catering to the dot-com crowd.
After the balls, partygoers are expected to gravitate toward late-night bashes like the one the Recording Industry Association of America is throwing at H20 Club, with 3 Doors Down performing.
Four years ago, culture watchers focused on the landmark shift from the Clinton years to the Bush II era. Out were Hollywood stars like Barbra Streisand and Michael Douglas and boomer-appealing rock acts like Dave Matthews and Fleetwood Mac. In were mainstream country-music acts (Brooks & Dunn), noncontroversial pop performers (Ricky Martin, Wayne Newton), and GOP-friendly stars like Grammer.
This time around the changes are more subtle. One small measure of how negatives can become attached to incumbency concerns the plans of the class of 1964 at Phillips Academy, of which the Bush is a member. Four years ago, 150 classmates and spouses gathered in Washington for a series of cocktail parties and after-hours receptions honoring the Bushes. This year, Andover '64 classmates will again party along the inaugural parade route, but in slightly less force. About 60 are expected to attend, according to Nathaniel Semple, who is organizing the program of events. "We planned it to be deliberately smaller this year," Semple said. "It's . . . still very high in quality."
Tom Seligson, a CBS News producer who helped organize the 2001 class party, offered a slightly different take on 2005 versus 2001. "This time around," he said in a voice mail message last week, "those of us who didn't vote for the boy are staying away in droves."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.