Inauguration or Coronation?

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Actresses and actors re-enacting George Washington's inaugural ball

I like a party as much as the next guy, but I think this inauguration business is a little overdone. It all smacks of a most un-republican longing for some kind of Princess Diana–ish royal spectacle.

And, by the way, Thomas Jefferson agrees with me.

Jefferson was so opposed to Old World pomp and flummery that he wanted George Washington to be inaugurated privately in the general's own home. The day Jefferson himself was inaugurated, he celebrated by having lunch at his boarding house, where he had to wait to be seated.

Yes, I know what all the scholars say, that the inauguration spotlights one of the great foundations of our democracy, the peaceful transition of power. But you can do that without spending millions of dollars on potted plants and endless balls and a fancy parade. A nice firm handshake would do.

The Constitution offers no guidance

By the way, the founders were more than a little ambivalent about royalty. A few of them even wanted Washington to be "President-for-life" (I believe that's called being king) and there was discussion of calling him Your Mightiness and Your Highness. (I suspect Bill Clinton might have enjoyed those titles.) It was also proposed that Washington wear a golden suit for his inauguration. Instead, Washington chose for himself the very down-to-earth American moniker of Mr. President and wore a plain brown suit with American eagles on the buttons.

When it comes to presidential inaugurations, the Constitution doesn't specify any ceremony at all, only an oath of 35 words. The president-elect swears to "faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." That's it. There's nothing about motorcades and inaugural gowns and Fortune 500 companies sponsoring gala events.

Everything we do now is the result of tradition and the taste of the incoming president. Some people are calling George W.'s presidency "the Restoration." In most places, when the eldest son of a country's highest leader succeeds his father, they call that a monarchy. That's why I'd urge George to go easy on all the finery. Maybe he can take his example from Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, who permitted that the White House — which, by the way, the founders called the People's House — be open on inauguration day to ordinary folks, the same folks who pay the president's salary.

Those balls: You're not missing much

It was Ronald Reagan, another Republican president, who gussied up inaugurations after Jimmy Carter had conspicuously tried to make the whole deal plain and unfancy. Carter insisted on calling the balls "parties," eschewed white tie and tails, and walked up Pennsylvania Avenue on his own two legs. There's nothing more powerful than the most powerful man in the world walking by himself. I think George W. would send the right kind of message if he embraced good old Republican-cloth-coat simplicity rather than Nancy Reagan's fur and sequins and faux-aristocracy. And this is especially apt for a president who lost the popular vote.

I promise you, you're really not missing anything by not attending the inaugural. I've been to two of them, and unless you've given the incoming president more than a $100,000 you'll be sitting so far away that you'll see George W.'s lips move before you hear his words. The balls are deeply tedious. You stand around thinking, Gee, that other ball we decided not to go to has got to be a lot more fun than this one. And don't even think about going to more than one: gridlock and the Secret Service prevent that.

I know I sound like a killjoy. But the inauguration has become like so many other contemporary American holidays — that is, a celebration for celebration's sake. Too many of our holidays, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, have become deracinated consumer celebrations unconnected to any traditional meaning.

So, yes, let's celebrate the stately and peaceful transition of democratic power. As always, George Washington got it right. When his successor, John Adams, was inaugurated in a simple indoor ceremony, Washington bowed and insisted that Adams leave the room first. After all, Adams was the commander-in-chief. But Washington knew that he himself now had the higher title: citizen.