IT’S NO TIME TO THROW A PARTY LIKE THIS

Here’s something I’d like to see on Thursday. George W. Bush, being sworn in for his second term as president, then shaking hands with a few dignitaries.

And everyone goes home.

Would anyone suffer from such a low-key affair? Would the country be diminished? I doubt it. After all, Bush has had the job the last four years. He’s not a new arrival. And we are at war. Our children are dying. Sixty years ago, at the height of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose a low-key inauguration: a simple ceremony, a brief speech and a modest luncheon of chicken salad and unfrosted pound cake.

No such austerity for President Bush, who, having already shattered campaign fund-raising records, is now ready to party as if he lives in a vault. He hired the top money men from his re-election campaign (one is a venture capitalist and two are investment bankers) to shake the trees for his “coming back” shindig. It aims to be a $40-million affair – or roughly 1,000 times the U.S. median annual family income – complete with parades, fireworks, concerts and nine “official” balls.

Nine balls?

It is a brazen display of victory and ego. Four years ago, the administration had a $100,000 limit on private contributions to the inauguration. That is obscene enough. But Bush has upped the “limit” now to $250,000. And there’s been no shortage of takers. A virtual phone book of major corporations – from AT&T to Pepsi to Boeing to Exxon – and industries from nuclear power to Wall Street have all ponied up.

And what do they get?

We don’t need a theme

Well, besides the VIP tickets to everything, what they mostly get is access. The “exclusive” lunch and candlelit dinners with the president and Vice President Dick Cheney. The chance to whisper their needs to top members of the administration. The chance to show this president, who values loyalty even over common sense, that they are loyal contributors.

Is that really the message you want to send on the day you’re sworn in?

Oh sure, the theme of the inauguration celebration – and the fact that there is a “theme” already proves this is over the top – is “Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service.” And every speech and photo op will be spun to show support for our troops.

But throwing money at a gala isn’t support. In the end, you clean the dishes, sweep up the confetti and go home. That $40 million didn’t buy you anything but photographs and memories.

Which is all some families have left of their sons and daughters, the ones who aren’t dancing, the ones who are overseas, getting shot at, and who, ironically, are sometimes short of basic equipment. A sequined gown won’t do them much good.

Spend, spend, spend

In case you’re wondering, I would say the same thing for any other president, Democrat or Republican. There is no reason the inauguration needs to be a blowout party. None whatsoever. The presidency is a privilege, a public service. It’s not the Oscars.

And for anyone who thinks we suffer in the eyes of the world if we low-key our inauguration, I ask you: Do you suppose they think more of us doing it this way?

Whatever happened to the words “humble servant”? Don’t politicians use that all the time? Well, it’s not humility when you provide free inauguration tickets to people contributing $10,000 to the Republican Party. It’s not humility when venture capitalists plan your affairs. It’s not humility when you say you’re honoring service, but only the tiniest fraction of people attending your inauguration will have children fighting. It’s not humility when your gala costs taxpayers millions in added security.

This whole thing is an exercise in hubris – especially when they’re fishing bodies out of the water from Indonesia to California. When Bush made his now infamous statement “I have political capital and I plan to spend it,” we didn’t know he meant $40 million for a party. The president who claims he was better “connected” to the American people sure seems a long way from them now.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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