Bush’s Lavish, Bad-Taste Inaugural Irks Many

President Bush is drawing heat over a $40 million splurge on inaugural balls, concerts and candlelight dinners while the country is in a somber mood because of the Iraq war and Asian tsunami.

As Bush prepares for his second-term inauguration on Thursday, his supporters plan to celebrate with fireworks and three days of parties, including a “Black Tie and Boots” ball and nine other balls.

Critics say the lavish celebrations are unseemly when U.S. troops face daily violence in Iraq and Americans are being urged to donate money to alleviate the suffering in Asia, where the Dec. 26 tsunami killed 163,000 people.

“I just think that the sobriety of the times dictate that we be mindful of the imagery of these things,” said Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York. In a letter, Weiner urged Bush to ask donors to redirect their inaugural contributions to equipment for troops in Iraq, some of whom have complained of having to scrounge for scrap metal to protect their vehicles.

“Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted — if not canceled — in wartime,” Weiner wrote to Bush, saying that the money could pay for 690 Humvees and a $290 bonus for each soldier serving in Iraq.

Weiner cited the example of President Franklin Roosevelt, who celebrated his trimmed-down 1945 inaugural with cold chicken salad and pound cake.

Bush said he rejected such criticism.

“It’s important that we celebrate a peaceful transfer of power …. You can be equally concerned about our troops in Iraq and those who suffered at the tsunamis (and) with celebrating democracy,” Bush said in a CBS News interview released on Monday.

He said inauguration activities would include military-themed events such as a Commander-in-Chief Ball and a Salute to Service. “There’s ways for us to honor the soldier and, at the same time, celebrate,” the president added.

President Lyndon Johnson did not eschew pageantry in 1965, racking up a $1.6 million bill for inaugural festivities despite the Vietnam War, historian Robert Dallek noted.

The tradition of inaugural balls dates back to the swearing in of James Madison in 1809. In modern presidential history, expensive parties and balls have become part of the tradition.

Companies and individual donors, not taxpayers, are footing the bill for Bush’s festivities.

Political scientist George Edwards of Texas A & M University said he didn’t fault the president’s supporters for indulging in a little splendor but said the huge donations feed a cynical view of the influence of special interests.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the events were a time to “celebrate freedom” and “pay tribute to our men and women in uniform.” A formal salute to troops is part of the inaugural program.

Donors to the inaugural celebrations include corporations such as Ford Motor Co., Marathon Oil and Northrop Grumman as well as lobby groups like the American Bankers Association and the National Association of Home Builders.

Contributions have also poured in from donors such as Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers football team, and Carl Lindner, owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.

In addition to controversy over the private money spent on the inauguration, the bill to pay District of Columbia policeman and other workers for event security has also prompted criticism.

Washington officials are upset that the federal government has told them to use homeland security grants to pay costs associated with the inauguration. Mayor Anthony Williams estimated the inauguration would cost the cash-strapped city about $17.3 million.