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America’s party


It is a tradition, this extravagant inauguration of an American president. And however much we liberals enjoy finding reasons to scold (The war! The tsunami!), George Bush is not the first president to hold a bunch of glitzy do's during times of great stress and tragedy.

            So go ahead, if you're in the mood to celebrate this week: Celebrate. Some of us will look for other things to think about, because war or no war, tsunami or no tsunami, we wanted somebody besides Bush taking the oath of office on January 20.

            But while you're enjoying the party, think. The president has declared the festivities to be a time of "Celebrating Freedom and Honoring Service." So think about all the young men and women protecting that freedom and providing that service in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not the sons and daughters of the wealthy. On the whole, they are the children of Middle America, put in harm's way by a president with a tragically flawed policy, and tragically flawed planning and preparation.

            In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, some columnists and citizens have criticized the inaugural extravagance. Others find it perfectly acceptable. It's paid for by private donors, not taxpayers, these Bush supporters say, and if those donors want to throw an expensive party, that's their business. It's not fair, they say, to suggest halting the fun in Washington. Are the Bush critics giving up vacations, or movies, or personal entertaining?

            Still, it is disconcerting to hear, on National Public Radio, a report on the little "side" extravagances of the inauguration: hotel-room packages going for $10K a night, for instance.

            Well, appropriate or not, the movers and shakers with whom the Bush administration is friendly, and those hoping for that friendship, are in Washington this week, celebrating --- many of them extravagantly.

"It's as American as apple pie," a spokesperson for Ritz-Carlton (which contributed $250,000 to the celebration) told National Public Radio. The inauguration is "a seen-and-be-seen event," she said, a way to curry favor and court influence.

            That kind of flip talk hasn't generated protest from the working stiffs in the Red states. Maybe they just figure Bush deserves all this, that if they'd achieved what he has, they'd deserve a lavish celebration, too. Maybe they really believe that he's one of them, and that the inauguration is a celebration of theirvalues as well as his.

            But they're not going to the ball. Bush and his friends are. And contributions for the big event have come almost exclusively from the corporate elite: energy and pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street investment companies, big hotel chains, big media companies (including Time Warner), wealthy Republicans from across the country. (Rochester developer David Flaum contributed $100K.)

            That's who George Bush represents. That's who he's "one of." This is pay for play. Bush has cut taxes for the rich and intends to do it again. His Social Security privatization will benefit the investment firms who are throwing the parties for him, not working people, and certainly not our children and grandchildren. "Tort reform" will punish average people of average means who have been injured, suffered pain, and lost livelihood, some for the rest of their lives.

            Presidential inaugurations are events of great pomp and joy and festivity. They also carry great symbolism. This inauguration, with its fireworks and parties and parade, is no different. And while the nation Celebrates Freedom and Honors Service this week, some of us will be mourning the direction the country has taken. This inauguration, like the presidential administration at its center, feels awfully removed from reality.

Speaking of reality

What on earth was the Bob King saga all about? It was no surprise in October when King --- already making $150,000 a year as SUNY chancellor and getting a $90,000 housing allowance --- asked for a hefty raise. Abhorrent, maybe, but not surprising. The surprise is that the request was turned down.

            It also wasn't surprising when King asked for a six-month leave last week, with full pay --- to start immediately --- and expected the SUNY trustees to approve it the same week. That's just how lots of out-of-touch, high-level officials think these days.

            But three days later, King withdrew the request, just as the trustees were getting to vote. This is too critical a time in the SUNY system, he said, for him to be gone.

            The guy in charge of the SUNY system discovers that little inconvenience a couple of days after he asks for time off with pay?

            King insisted that public criticism didn't have a thing to do with his about-face. It did, though, seem a little callous to be asking for a leave-with-full-pay when he was pushing for a tuition hike for his students, and critics rushed to point that out.

            This is not the Bob King we knew when he was Monroe County executive. You saw the arrogance, but not the bald-faced stupidity, so you just knew there was something else going on.

            On Friday, the New York Times laid out what it said was the real story. Some SUNY trustees, the Times said, don't like King and wanted to get rid of him, so they worked a deal with King and the governor. King would request, and get, a fully paid leave --- and then just wouldn't come back.

            But King, said the Times, got miffed after some Pataki aides and Democratic legislators publicly criticized the leave request.

            Maybe that's all of the story. Maybe not. One thing's for sure: It's time for a lot of people in Albany to start getting acquainted with average New Yorkers.