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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bush fiddles while the world burns

Margaret Carlson Special to the Los Angeles Times

Jeanne Phillips, chairwoman of the 55th Presidential Inaugural Committee, was asked in a recent interview whether the $40 million being spent on the festivities might be better spent on the troops in Iraq. No, not really. She and the president instead decided to dedicate the festivities to “honoring service” and throwing, for the first time, a Commander in Chief Ball to which 2,000 servicemen have been invited. That, of course, leaves out the 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq, and countless others around the world. Just how do these events benefit the troops? “I’m not sure that they do,” she admitted, but she quickly repeated that “honoring service is what our theme is about.”

Let the troops eat a theme. Members of the 101st Airborne Division will no doubt be pleased to learn that partygoers at nine ballrooms will be honoring them. Surely that soldier who asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about a lack of armor won’t feel so bad about his unfortified vehicle if 2,000 servicemen are eating canapes in his name, and arms merchants are dancing till dawn in honor of arms-bearers in Mosul.

What’s surprising is that the down-to-earth president doesn’t get that the world has changed since his extravaganza in 2001. The master of identifying with the common man has blown such an easy opportunity to reinforce the image he’s so ardently cultivated, an image that just won him re-election despite four years of policies undertaken on behalf of the uncommon man. It’s a mask he must maintain if he’s to make tax cuts permanent, dismantle Social Security and pursue an ownership society for the benefit of the people who already own it – without the rest of the country catching on.

Naming the inaugural ball “Patriotic” doesn’t make it so. That’s especially true now that the war is overlaid with massive human suffering and deprivation in South Asia. If you were looking for the opposite of planting a victory garden, you couldn’t do better than to have sitcom star Kelsey Grammer emcee the military ball. If you want to laugh at human suffering then go trip the light fantastic at the Liberty Ball. (Visiting the black hole of devastation in Sumatra, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Of course, nothing Powell says will change anything. Powell’s involvement in an issue is confirmation that the president doesn’t care about it.)

Even the soft-as-a-pillow interviewer Larry King saw the incongruity of all this. In the middle of a joint interview on Monday with Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, just named to spearhead private donations for tsunami victims, King said “some people are saying that maybe some of the inaugural events can be … canceled or tempered down. What do you think?” Bush the elder said: “I think life goes on. I don’t think it will help anything in Sri Lanka if the balls were, you know, peeled back. That’s a separate question.” Any suggestion that his son was slow to respond or chintzy, added Bush, was simply “inside-the-Beltway stuff.”

Life goes on; that’s a truism. But inside the Beltway there was hardly a peep. This is fully Bush land now. Why is it a separate question? Given that the events are dedicated to the troops, why not give half the $40 million to them (with a chunk to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for phone cards so they can call home) and half of it to Sri Lanka?

So why did Bush finally spring into action on the tsunami? It was his slow realization that he looked out of step with ordinary Americans, treating his base as less than they are, simply as a voting bloc. While millions of good-hearted Americans were jamming the Web sites of Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross and other groups with donations, Bush was still on vacation, clearing brush at the ranch. It took more than a week for him to make a personal donation.

To cancel the balls, one Republican said, would be a cheap gesture. That was like the White House’s initial excuse for dragging its feet, that Bush didn’t want to jump on tragedies as did his predecessor, Clinton, who Bush has officially appointed to jump on the tragedy.

But the truth is that Bush loves a cheap gesture – landing on an aircraft carrier in a flyboy suit or giving a speech like the one Wednesday on medical malpractice, in which he was surrounded by people in white jackets to signify medical good practice.

The deputy of the inaugural organization said a presidential inaugural has never been canceled, even during the world wars, so the administration isn’t going to start now. But that’s the inauguration itself, which is a pretty economical affair – a Bible, a platform, some seating. Balls are different. Franklin D. Roosevelt canceled three balls because of the Depression and World War II. It is hard to believe that a president who used life-size pictures of Roosevelt as a backdrop at an international speech wouldn’t see the anomaly. Imagine if this were a month after the death of 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

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