Topic: Government & Politics

The Ethics of Celebration

Once every four years, the United States of America celebrates the inauguration of a President. It is a unique tradition with grand historical significance, a peaceful and unified establishment of great power in one individual based on a national election, controlled and limited by the remarkable document known as the United States Constitution. Following the swearing-in ceremony itself, the nation salutes its own achievement with a parade, and later, a series of parties spread across Washington D.C., primarily for the enjoyment of those who contributed money, time, thought and passion to the victorious President’s campaign.

All of this costs money, of course, generally more money every cycle as the result of rising costs, rising expectations, and the ingrained American obsession with always seeking to make things bigger, better, and flashier. This time around, there have been more than the usual Puritan objections to the excess, as Democrats, columnists, Bush-critics and even some non-partisan kill-joys have suggested that the ethical thing to do would be to spend the inauguration celebration funds on something more meaningful and productive — tsunami relief, perhaps. It is unseemly to celebrate lavishly in time of war, they say. The ethical thing is to be subdued and understated.

Is it wrong to spend dollars on parties and celebrations when turmoil, conflict and need are so prominent in the world? That is a question worth considering, even if many of those raising it are motivated by an underlying bias that this President and his supporters are uniquely undeserving of a national celebration. This particular attitude is without legitimacy; it is a hangover from campaign bitterness that has caused some rabid partisans to forget that part of the American process is for the citizenry to rally around the duly elected President in respect for the office and the process. Some of them are talking about moving to Canada, some are insisting that a dark conspiracy manufactured a fraudulent Bush victory, and some want the inauguration to be treated like a funeral, to match their grim view of the state of the nation.

Though their motivations are ill-founded, the matter of propriety is still a valid point. The inauguration and festivities are projected to cost over 40 million dollars. Surely, the money could be better spent.

No, it couldn’t — not if one believes that American democracy and the ideals it stands for are truly a beacon for the world. The renewal of our government is a historical miracle that occurs only a couple of times a decade, and it is critically important that neither American citizens nor the rest of the world forget its meaning. Part of that renewal is giving the volunteers and campaign workers and party regulars who got their candidate elected a rousing thank you, not from just the victorious party, but from the country itself. They make the democracy work. They deserve one night of exquisite celebration.

Perhaps the better term is symbolic celebration. I have been to two Inaugural Balls, and they are anything but fun parties in the usual sense of the word: over-crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. But there is also exhilaration about them, a genuine feeling that that this government has been put into power by us, by regular people. They remind us of our original American ideals, and though these ideals are often obscured by money and power abuse and ineptitude— indeed, because they are — it is crucial that we return to them for inspiration after each Presidential election.

The Watergate investigation cost over 40 million dollars. President Clinton’s trip to China in 1999 cost 40 million dollars. $40 million dollars doesn’t pay the combined annual salaries of Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. 40 million dollars is not a great deal of money to reinforce American traditions, celebrate democracy, and say to the world, as our National Anthem proclaims, that the star-spangled banner still waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Far from being the time to mute that message, when the United States is fighting for democracy and freedom abroad is the time to trumpet it.

Let the celebration commence, and let Americans be proud of every band, every flourish, and every exultant gesture. Above all, America has to believe in itself.

The MasterCard formula is apt:

One Presidential Inauguration — Cost: 40 million dollars.

Celebrating and reaffirming the miracle of American Democracy —



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