When George Bush is inaugurated Friday, he will make history in more ways than one.
The ceremony will constitute a significant milestone, the 200th anniversary of the inauguration of a U.S. president. Such longevity underscores the vigor and viability of the American form of government.Another milestone is also being passed, since the event will cost $25 million - making it by far the most expensive inauguration ever. That's $5 million more than it cost to inaugurate Ronald Reagan in 1985 and is being compared with the $3.5 million spent on Jimmy Carter's inauguration.
Such lavishness isn't what the Founding Fathers envisioned. In reaction to the elaborate pomp and ceremony of British coronations, they looked for an austere event. For George Washington's inauguration, there was a 13-gun salute and the church bells rang, followed by a ceremony from which the new president walked home afterwards.
The taxpayers won't have to foot the bill for the Bush inauguration and the five days of celebrating that accompanied it. The money is being provided through interest-free loans from 200 corporations, industry groups, and individuals. Wisely, the committee organizing the inauguration has released the names of the contributors. That's proper, since many of the contributors do business with the government and releasing their names should help head off any possibility of conflicts of interest. The contributors hope to recoup their loans through the sale of 47 different souvenirs.
In all the celebrating, let's hope Washington does not lose sight of what an inauguration is supposed to be all about. Only two things really matter - the orderly transfer of power from one administration to the next, and the inaugural address in which the new president sets the tone for his new administration.
There have been many memorable inaugural addresses. Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, for example, is remembered for his famous attempt at post-civil war reconciliation: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address, delivered during the darkest hours of the Great Depression, is remembered for the phrase: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Likewise, John Kennedy's contained the still-quoted admonition: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
George Bush will be done a serious disservice if the expensive pageantry and glitter are allowed to upstage what he says on Friday.