Give class a chance

Posted: Jan 19, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - In the movie "Annie Hall," Woody Allen's Alvy Singer character memorably says: "I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening."

As we approach this week's inauguration and attendant celebrations, I know just what he means. In the aftermath of one of Mother Nature's most murderous events and as the death count mounts in Iraq, I could skip it.

An oath, a loaf and some chicken salad sound about right. On the other hand, it's clear that no matter what President George W. Bush does, about 48 percent of America's voters are going to take offense.

If he were to take his oath of office, make a few remarks and quietly retreat to the White House for dinner with friends, those who wanted anybody but Bush would find a way to spin gold into hay.

BEG ITAL)He's ashamed, look at him, they'd say. He knows he's bungled the war and knows better than to show his face beaming over a parade. What a coward.

Bush, it seems, can't win for winning.

Amidst all the sturm und drang about whether he should host an inaugural week featuring the usual pomp and circumstance, there are a few kernels of truth mixed with mostly much ado. Inaugurations have always been either too much or too little, depending on one's politics, and this year is no different.

The inaugurations of Presidents George Washington and John Adams, for instance, were thought to be too much royal pomp, so Thomas Jefferson tried to bring his ceremony to the people. He declined a carriage ride and walked to the Capitol for his swearing in.

Fast-forward through similar advances and retreats, from extravagance to guilt, and John F. Kennedy brought formality back, even insisting that men wear top hats. Jimmy Carter, who also chose to walk rather than ride in a limo, instituted business suits instead of tuxedos, renamed the balls "parties," and served pretzels and peanuts.

Carter wasn't just democratic and thrifty - he spent only $3.5 million on his inauguration - he was a human snooze. Even The People were bored.

To the rescue came Ronald Reagan with the most expensive inauguration in history, and the pomp was put back in the romp. Each inauguration thereafter has been bigger, better, more elaborate and more expensive than the one before, and complainers have surfaced accordingly.

According to Michael Nelson's "Guide to the Presidency," George H.W. Bush's 1989 inauguration cost $30 million, Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration ran $25 million, and George W. Bush's 2001 ceremony cost around $40 million. This year's costs are expected to run closer to $50 million.

While most of the money has come from private fund-raising - from ticket sales to packages that run as high as $250,000 - the cost of security comes from taxpayers. The District of Columbia estimates its security expense at $17 million.

What seems to rub most critics is the display of great wealth in the midst of great global plight. Big money, big corporate donors, big boots and big snoots.

With a couple of exceptions - notably Carter's hokey-pokey - inaugurations have always been rich in snob appeal, and corporate sponsorship is common. When exactly have the poor 'n' oppressed picked up the tab?

In his book "Presidential Inaugurations: From Washington's Election to George W. Bush's Gala," Paul F. Boller Jr. recalls Alice Roosevelt's commentary following her father's inauguration: "Anyone who is anyone is there, and a lot of people who are no one try to get in as well."

An observer of Grover Cleveland's first inauguration in 1884 described the affair as "one of the finest displays of beauty, health and wealth ever congregated in America."

Ostentation, in other words, isn't new to Washington.

The Bush administration, aware of the need during wartime to balance celebration and sensitivity, is trying to strike the right note. The inauguration's theme is "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service." There's also a "Commander-in-Chief Ball," which will be free to 2,000 military personnel and their families.

Even so, given current events - the war in Iraq, America's negative image in the Muslim world, the fact of thousands dead and more suffering in the tsunami's wake - Bush might have toned it down. We are, after all, in a PR battle as well as a military war.

Impressions count. Gestures matter. Style is nearly as important as substance as we try to rally a reluctant world to share our vision of freedom. Overfed fat cats cutting a rug over booze and bombast is not precisely the image America needs to broadcast to a resentful world seething in the grip of calamity.

Besides, nobody likes a showoff.