With last week’s devastating jobs report, it’s time for us to ask a simple question: Is it right to spend millions on inaugural festivities while our country fights two wars and our economy continues to move like a runaway freight train headed straight for disaster’s wall?
Should we really host a concert on the Mall when more than 350,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have received care from VA hospitals and clinics—some learning to walk again and too many with the unseen scars of war?
Must there be a parade and fireworks while mothers send their children to bed layered in clothing because the heat’s been shutoff, and grandparents watch a lifetime of labor and love disappear as fast as the Dow’s ticker moves across the bottom of the TV screen?
For the first time since George Washington quietly transferred power to John Adams, the ceremony is the event—not the MTV Ball or Oprah’s show at The Kennedy Center.
Do we really need an MTV Ball when families hold steady around a grave until the last note of “Taps” finishes?
Other presidents have canceled inaugural celebrations before. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called the idea of parties “undignified.” Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps regretting that he had allowed the 1933 inaugural festivities to go forward during the Great Depression (complete with a movie star-filled express train from Los Angeles), didn’t have a ball in 1937 or 1941—and in 1945 he just held a small lunch. What would President Roosevelt do and what words would President Wilson use for today’s challenges?
Yes, the President-elect is sure to surpass the $42 million raised in 2005 to cover the costs of the parade and fireworks. We can have these events. But “can” and “should” are two different words. Should we hold these events in these perilous times?
It certainly felt wrong in 2005. I remember walking to the Mall to listen to President Bush’s speech. Even though I had worked for two years trying to defeat the president’s re-election, I thought he had a great team of speechwriters, still among the best—even if they never sent a tingle up Chris Matthews’s leg.
It was the first inauguration I’d been to since President Bill Clinton’s in 1993. That day, I walked by the Vietnam Memorial and people were etching names on to front pages of newspapers. They left flowers and Teddy Bears and notes excited about the change to come. Maybe there was hope at the base of the Wall that day because the sun was out and we weren’t at war. But by 2005, there was no one around and the only thing at its base was the snow that had fallen the night before.
After President Bush’s speech, it just felt wrong that while others were sacrificing for their country, no one was being asked to do the same here. The parade marched on. The balls went late into the night. And the president danced while I’m sure a veteran somewhere in America moved his wheelchair into a back room.
But this year when all of those challenges that existed in 2005 have only gotten worse and we don’t have a dime or a day to waste to fix them, it seems wholly inappropriate. Inaugural parties are different than, say, the Super Bowl or the Oscars. Those are entertainment events. This is about governing.
See, for the first time since George Washington quietly transferred power to John Adams, the ceremony is the event—not the MTV Ball or Oprah’s show at The Kennedy Center.
Perhaps as many as 1.5 million people will be coming to Washington for the ceremony. It will be an extraordinary sight for all who voted for the president-elect (and even those who did not) to see the first African-American place his hand on the Bible and say the words, “I do solemnly swear.”
People will still fill the hotels, and spend their money in restaurants and bars with or with out the balls or a concert on the Mall or the fancy luncheons with pundits. So why not kick the new term off with a message worthy of the moment: the sacrifice not of a few, but by and for us all.
Since September 11, 2001 the only Americans who have been asked to sacrifice are those who lost loved-ones that day. Those who have been called to defend us in Afghanistan. Those who lifted charred bodies from the Pentagon and dust from Ground Zero. The thousands and thousands of National Guard members who closed up their businesses to fight for us in Iraq and who can now barely find work at a big box retailer. The time has come for all of us to sacrifice and with the ceremony carrying such historical weight, the president-elect should follow the leads of Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt and not President Lincoln, who is reported to have danced during the Civil War.
It was certainly welcome news to learn that the 2009 Inauguration will be as open and inclusive as ever, and that it won’t be sponsored by the geniuses at AIG, Bear Stearns and Citigroup. And even though donations are limited to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for couples, why would we willingly send that money up in firework smoke? It’s certainly a noble idea to have President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden offer to do community service, but if there’s a chance to raise millions why not put it to work in a lasting way?
What if instead of shredding their money into confetti, donors gave their $50,000 contributions to help veterans’ families struggling to put their lives back together? What if Hollywood took its money and gave it to food banks so that the millions of Americans who went hungry last year won’t have to this year? What if big donors—approximately 250,000 of them—bought mosquito nets to fight extreme poverty in Africa or fight it in Appalachia?
I know, I know, and what if unicorns, puppies, and kittens jumped over rainbows together?
If showing some restraint on inaugural festivities is too much to ask, perhaps we can make excess a virtue. As a friend of mine suggested, why not double the contributions so that half goes toward paying for security and wine bars, and the other half goes toward the needs of the country? After all, if you can write a check for $50,000 chances are the next $50,000 is there too.
In no way will these donations fix our mess, but the Declaration of Independence started with a word, the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a step, the Erie Canal with a shovel filled with dirt—great accomplishments often start small.
Imagine a president who finally stands up on the day when everyone is listening and gives us not just words about sacrifice and renewal, but backs them up with deeds.
That would bring dignity to the families holding steady around the graves, honor and hope to the service members and their families trying to rebuild their lives, and humility to us all in our remembrance that those who struggle are with us every step of every day. And for the first time in years, these remarkable Americans might actually turn from their hometowns and toward the Capitol in astonishment that someone finally hears them not because of the words they say, but in the actions they take by asking the country to do what is right for the work to come.
Wendy Button is a writer in Washington, DC. She has written for Senators John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Mayor Tom Menino of Boston as well as other national and international leaders.