The First Lady has always merited her designation as “the brighter Bush.” But, clearly, she needs to study up on American history.
With concern mounting about the wisdom of the Bush team’s plans for four days of lavish inaugural festivities, Laura Bush was dispatched to make the case for the $40 million blowout that was organized to erase any doubt about who is in charge. Like her husband and his aides, the First Lady announced her approval of the ridiculous extravagance that will accompany what that is starting to look more and more like a royal coronation. The excess is necessary, she explained, because big parties at the opening of a presidential term are “an important part of our history.”
“They’re a ceremony of our history; they’re a ritual of our government,” she said of free-spending inaugural celebrations, after being asked whether it was appropriate to spend tens of millions of dollars on ten different parties at a time when the nation is at war and much of the world is still recovering from the tsunami disaster.
It was a measure of the concern of the Bush Administration’s political overseers that the First Lady, whose popularity is greater and surely more deserved than that of the President, was sent out to fight for the Administration’s right to party.
Unfortunately, she added nothing to the debate over inaugural bloat when she grounded her argument in historical precedent.
The fact is that America has a mixed history with regards to inaugural style. Yes, there have been opulent ceremonies and celebrations in the past, organized by Democrats as well as Republicans. But there have also been restrained recognitions of the transfer of power, particularly in times of war and international turbulence–most notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s subdued fourth inaugural during the last days of World War II.
In truth, however, only one President has marked his inauguration in the true spirit of the American experiment.
That President understood the experiment better than most because he, Thomas Jefferson, had had such a central hand in launching it.
Elected after a bitter campaign that culminated in the first defeat of a sitting President–the often regal John Adams–Jefferson could have been excused for putting on a great celebration to mark the peaceful transition of power.
But he chose to do the opposite.
On the morning of March 4, 1801, the President-elect awoke in his small room in Conrad’s Boarding House on Capitol Hill–where he had lived during the past four years when he served as a dissident Vice President. After dressing in simple clothes, he went to the breakfast room and took his usual seat at the table, declining the offer of a place at the head of the table that had been made in deference to the fact that on this day he would be sworn in as the nation’s third President.
Just before noon, Jefferson left Conrad’s and walked through the muddy streets of Washington to the Capitol, where he was sworn in without pomp or circumstance. He quietly delivered an inaugural address in which he affirmed his faith in “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people…”
Jefferson then walked back to his rooming house, where at dinner time he again refused a place of honor at the table–displaying not merely in words, but in deeds, his belief that the President was a servant of the people, not their better and certainly not their ruler.
The symbolism of Jefferson’s approach to his inauguration was intentional.
The new President wanted Americans to put behind them the trappings of their colonial past.
He believed that the age of kings and queens was ending, while the age of the democracy was beginning.
It should come as no surprise that George Bush, with his regal instincts and inflated sense of self-importance, would want a big party. But Laura Bush, who has never seemed quite so royally inclined as her husband, should know better than to suggest that there is anything inherently American about such festivities.
They are, in fact, an ugly and wholly indefensible abandonment of the template that Jefferson sought to imprint upon a nation founded in revolt against royalty.