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Party On!

As the day unfolds, I'm wondering if we'll hear more tongue-clucking about the gross indulgence of the whole inaugural display. With the country in a deep, increasingly painful, ever-scarier recession, there has understandably been some debate about whether the Obama people should have canceled--or at least dramatically scaled back--the usual inagurual pomp and circumstance. This weekend, former King of the Hill Tom Delay popped up in Politico, mouthing off about the whole affair:

If Obama were "serious" about changing Washington, DeLay said, "He would announce to the world: 'We are in crisis, we are at war, people are losing jobs; we are not going to have this party. Instead, I'm going to get sworn in at the White House. I'm going to have a nice little chicken dinner, and we'll save the $125 million.'"

It wasn't just the bitter wingers expressing disapproval. Over at New York's Daily Intel, John Heilemann issued a world-weary sigh over the silliness of the planned festivities:

The whistle-stop tour struck me as contrived to the point of ridiculousness. The aim here was to echo Lincoln, but, as CQ's Craig Crawford noted, "If Lincoln had done what Obama did — embrace the memory of past presidents by emulating their mode of transportation — Old Abe would have already been in Washington, but then boarded a train to Philadelphia, returning on a horse." (Even sillier in the be-like-Lincoln department: The menu at Obama's post-inaugural lunch features foods — seafood stew, duck, pheasant — that the sixteenth president is thought to have enjoyed.) The concert on the mall on Sunday was a snooze. And the balls on Tuesday night promise to be as opulent and pointless as they always are.

With a half-nod to Delay, Heilemann grumbled about the cost and argued that the Obama team should have gone with a cheaper, less conventional, more decentralized approach: 

What if, instead, the Obama people had made the Washington component of the inauguration as minimalist as possible — just the speech from the steps of the Capitol? What if they'd canceled all the balls and parties inside the Beltway and instead used their grassroots network to stage mini-inaugurals in every state of the union, each of them a charity benefit on behalf of a designated local cause? Such a course would have set a starkly different tone, one focused not on celebration but on civic engagement. It would have provided an object lesson in how Obama and his crew intend to use the web in dramatic and purposeful ways outside the campaign context. It would have allowed them to expand their already enormous network. And, most of all, it would have been genuinely new.

I'm sorry, but I completely disagree. Well, not completely. I do think that taking the inaugural spirit to the people is a fine idea. And I do think that, considering the challenges facing the nation, that there should be a focus on civic engagement. But, in fact, both of these elements have been incorporated into the Obama inaugural activities. As Heilemann himself acknowledges: "I know, I know, the Obama people are using the web to enable lots of local inauguration parties. And they've tried to open up the proceedings, to make them more accessible, in other ways as well." The speeches along the Obama-Biden whistle-stop tour mentioned the tough times ahead and the need for Americans to pull together. And Monday, MLK Day, was touted as all about getting out and volunteering. Flyers even came home from my son's school, listing various local opportunities to get involved. 

Yes, this inauguration is going to be more expensive than past ones. That said, the cost comparisons with the Bush 2005 festivities ($42 million for Bush vs. somewhere between $125 and $160 million for Obama) are beyond useless, in part because the Bush numbers being bandied about don't include security costs (which account for the bulk of the bill at these affairs) and in part because the security and logistical needs for welcoming back a garden-variety second-term president are of course going to be vastly smaller than those for the first swearing in of--altogether now!--the first black president in the nation's history. Nowhere close to half a million people attended Bush's second inaugural. Washington has been bracing for somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million for this year's event. The number of port-a-potties alone causes the mind to reel.     

As for the idea that the entire inaugural spirit should focus "not on celebration but on civic engagement": bollucks. No matter how ominous the economic outlook, the inauguration of a new president is something to celebrate. And, yes, that is all the more true because of the "historic nature" of this particular president. (Translation: OMG! Can you believe we finally elected a black guy!) In addition to feeling the burden of the nation's current situation, the Obama people are keenly aware of the widespread, pent-up desire to celebrate this day with all of the "ridiculousness" that this country can muster. The entire globe is watching. We should not shortchange the moment.  

Moreover, I'd argue that the current anxiety and pessimism people are feeling make a large-scale, communal moment of celebration all the more important. In general, during tough times, people crave a little glamour and escapism. (There is a reason that the Great Depression spawned a Hollywood glut of high-society comedies.) More specifically, when there is an uneasy sense that our nation is struggling, people need to be reminded of its greatness. We need to feel like our best times are yet to come. We need spectacle. We need uplift. We need pomp and ceremony and, yes, silly whistle stop tours and cheesy speeches that self-consciously remind us how far we have come. It may not be entirely rational--and perhaps even a tad counterproductive. But it's also human nature.

Do we need a massive, star-studded concert on the National Mall? Possibly not. Then again, the people I know who attended said that, while it was too crowded and the acoustics were lousy, the atmosphere--the sense of being part of something major--was a gas. Besides, a big point of that little display--open to the public and broadcast free on HBO--was to expand the inaugural energy beyond the usual fuddy-duddy audience of old folks and Washington eminences. Not everyone can score a ticket to the inaugural balls around town. But any hardy soul willing to drive, hitch-hike, or scam a bus-ticket to Washington, haul their carcass out of bed at the crack of dawn, and sit for several hours in the freezing cold could take part in Sunday's concert. Were parts of it tacky? Sure. But so is a lot of what makes America great. 

Michelle Cottle