At a time when the United States is fighting two wars and faces a severe recession and huge budget deficits, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president is estimated to cost $45 million. Bush's 2004 inauguration cost roughly $40 million. But though the figures are similar, there's been a major shift in the tone of coverage at the New York Times.
While the Times spent much of January 2005 making clear its disapproval of Bush extravagantly celebrating his inauguration during wartime, that concerned tone is conspicuously absent from the Times in January 2009, although the country is not only still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in danger of a deep recession. The difference? Perhaps because this time, it's the Times's favored candidate who is readying to assume the highest office.
A January 11, 2005 editorial on Bush's second inauguration, "Victor's Spoils," sniffed:
At the rate President Bush's supporters are giving money, his second inauguration threatens to stand out in the history books like the common folks' muddy boot prints on the White House furniture at Andrew Jackson's gala. The $40 million record for inaugural partying set four years ago for Mr. Bush is expected to be shattered this month....Ordinary citizens might have hoped that the overriding issue in Washington -- the perilous Iraq war, with its drain on the nation's blood and treasure -- would dictate restraint. But plans for the four-day extravaganza roll forward with nine celebratory balls being underwritten by the usual corporate and fat-cat supplicants in the political power mill. There's nothing new in Washington's triumphalist celebrations, festooned with price tags for access, but war usually mutes the singing and dancing. Not this year.
Here's a January 16, 2005 headline: "The Inauguration: The Ceremonies; For Inauguration in Wartime, A Lingering Question of Tone." Reporter John Tierney noted:
Inaugurations are always balancing acts: part coronation, part celebration of democracy, part touchdown dance in the end zone. But they become even trickier during times of war, particularly when television images of dancers in black tie can be instantly juxtaposed with soldiers in body armor....Some critics say spending so much on these parties seems ill-timed both because of the Iraq war and the tsunami catastrophe in Asia. Anthony D. Weiner, a Democratic congressman preparing to run for mayor of New York, sent President Bush a letter on Tuesday suggesting that the millions in inaugural funds be sent to the troops in Iraq.
To his credit, Tierney explained that lavish presidential inaugurations even during wartime have been the norm rather than the exception in American history.
Reporter Anne Kornblut, now with the Washington Post, even took the argument to first lady Laura Bush in a January 15, 2005 story, "Laura Bush Defends Gala in Time of War and Disasters."
With less than a week to go until her husband's second inauguration, Laura Bush on Friday defended the decision to hold the $40 million celebration as planned despite a war abroad and the tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean.
In response to critics who have questioned the propriety of a lavish inaugural celebration in a time of war, Mr. Bush has made the military a central focus of the week's events, and sponsors of other gatherings this week have followed his lead.
President Bush opened his inaugural celebrations on Tuesday with a lavish two-hour tribute to the United States military, but warned the crowd of 7,000 service members that "much more will be asked of you in the months and years ahead."....The tribute, "Saluting Those Who Serve," was created by inaugural organizers to set a solemn tone for the festivities surrounding Mr. Bush's swearing-in on Thursday and comes amid criticism of a three-day celebration with a price tag of $40 million. In addition to the military, 7,000 civilians also attended the invitation-only event.
Yet the incoming Obama administration has suffered no such criticism. No editorial has appeared chiding President-elect Obama about extravagant inauguration spending while the nation is involved in two wars and is being buffeted by a deep financial crisis. The difference in tone is evident in chirpy stories like Wednesday's story by Juliet Macur on Obama-related merchandise: "Inspired by Obama's Message? Pull Out Your Wallet."
(The Times itself is aggressively hawking its own Obama commemorative merchandise, including its Election Day edition and its upcoming Inauguration Day edition, as well as a Times book to be released on President's Day, "Obama: The Historic Journey.")
David Kirkpatrick's Friday story on inauguration perks for Obama donors, "To Those Who Gave Much, Much Will Be Given," made no mention of the sinking economy, or the propriety of holding such an opulent inauguration during a recession and two wars.