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Published: Wednesday, 1/12/2005

Mr. Bush's coronation

EVEN dyed-in-the-mink Republicans have to be wincing a bit at the $40 million price tag for the three-day exhibition of excess that will mark the second inauguration of President Bush next week in Washington.

A diamond-studded package of receptions, concerts, fireworks on the Ellipse, three candlelight dinners, and no fewer than nine official inaugural balls are set, all enclosed in a cocoon of security said to be the tightest of any in the 216-year history of such events.

Everything is bigger, more lavish, and more costly than any of the 54 presidential inaugurals that have gone before. For those who can afford them, tickets to the various events come hitched to sponsorship costs of $100,000 and $250,000.

To the casual observer, it might appear that a coronation is about to occur, although we have it on good authority that the United States is still a constitutional democracy - albeit one whose presidential installation ceremonies have changed a good bit over the years.

When George Washington took the oath for the first time in 1789, what was described as "pressing public business" caused the official inaugural ball to be put off until May 7. Some war-time presidents, as Mr. Bush fancies himself, have gauged the public mood and refused to hold inaugural festivities while Americans were dying in an overseas conflict, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. No such consideration this time.

As with many Bush Administration endeavors, not all the costs of the 2005 inauguration are reflected in the advertised price, which is supposed to be covered by private donations from high-roller individuals and corporations.

Security, for example. District of Columbia officials are still waiting for an answer on who will cover the city of Washington's $17.3 million tab for various inaugural costs, including $5.3 million in police overtime.

The unprecedented security effort will be overseen by the Secret Service and 50 federal, state, and local agencies from a special command post somewhere in northern Virginia. More than 4,600 law enforcement officers will guard the 1.7-mile route of the inaugural parade, which reaches from the Capitol to the White House.

We don't quarrel with a president's right to hold an inauguration in keeping with the historic significance of the quadrennial event, or with the need for security.

But given a war seemingly without end, and the horrors of the tsunami still fresh, perhaps restraint should have prevailed.

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