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Wartime Inauguration Balances Pomp Against Circumstance

With the Indian Ocean tsunami and instability in Iraq dominating the news, the Presidential Inaugural Committee (search) planning this week's big event is trying to find balance between hosting an inaugural celebration befitting an American president and not appearing insensitive and showy during these grave times.

But that response is not enough for some critics of the massive parties, parade and special events.

"I'm feeling very grim about the situation in the world today and I think a lot of people are too. I don't think watching these kinds of lavish displays is going to buck anybody up," retired Washington. D.C., attorney Bernard Ries told FOXNews.com. "Let's not do the ball and fireworks."

PIC spokesman Kevin Sheridan said inaugural planners are hardly ignoring the current situation in Iraq. This year's inaugural theme, "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service,” will be incorporated into all events, Sheridan said.

"Our celebration, from the earliest planning days, has always taken into account that we are a nation at war, and it will focus on the sacrifices of the Armed Forces and will reflect our nation's gratitude for our fighting men and women," he said, adding that the week's worth of events will incude a military gala, fireworks and the new “Commander in Chief” ball, which will be free to 2,000 members of the Armed Services and their families.

The 55th presidential inaugration, and second for President Bush, plans to raise up to $50 million for this year’s fete, mostly from large corporate donors and individuals. Costs are expected to exceed the $40 million raised for the 2001 inaugural.

The events — which range from a youth concert hosted by the Bush daughters, to the official inaugural parade and balls — are not publicly funded. According to PIC's Web site, scores of energy, technology, defense, pharmaceutical and media companies have already pledged donations ranging from $25,000 to $250,000.

Bush’s top election fund-raisers, known as “Pioneers” and “Rangers,” also make up a number of the inaugural’s biggest sponsors. Former Enron Corp. (search) President Rich Kinder and his wife Nancy, a Bush "Pioneer" in 2004, donated $250,000 to the inauguration. Nancy Kinder raised $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign.

Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, who put $2.5 million of his money behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) ads that ran against Democratic candidate John Kerry during the 2004 election, has also donated $250,000 to the inaugural event.

The upper dollar donations buy contributors perks like high-demand tickets to the balls and face time with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search). On top of that, Internet sales for one of the nine official balls, the inaugural parade and other events are charging $125 to $1,700 per ticket.

Tax money, however, will pay for security, which will be "unprecedented" in U.S. history, according to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who has not yet announced a total expected cost. Ridge has said that more than 6,000 law enforcement officers will work on Inauguration Day. In addition, 2,500 U.S troops will be on hand for security and another 4,000 or more will be attending the inauguration as part of their ceremonial duties.

D.C. officials say their cost for security will be upwards of $17 million. They reluctantly say most of the money will come out of their regular federal homeland security budget.

While the price tag keeps rising, so does the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Since the beginning of the war, at least 1,358 U.S servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 14,000 have been hurt due to combat and non-battle related injuries.

Critics say with the dangers facing U.S. troops abroad and the fact that Bush is entering his second term, rather than his first, spending that kind of cash appears excessive and inappropriate.

“The inaugural committee is saying they are dedicating this to the fighting men and women, which is fine, but the way to do that is not throwing nine balls,” said Ries. “I think the families of soldiers who have been killed and maimed and wounded will see this and see all the people decked out in tuxedos and cowboy hats … and say, this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Ries said not all presidents have hosted grandiose inaugural celebrations — particularly in wartime, depression, or for their additional terms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (search), for his 1945 inauguration during World War II, canceled the parade due to lumber and gasoline rationing, and requested only a short ceremony and discreet luncheon afterward, he said.

But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Roosevelt more likely canceled the events — during his fourth term and while seriously ill — for different reasons.

"Frankly, the Bush people would be wise to cancel one or two events — from a public relations perspective — but are they obligated in no way. That’s the president's call," said Sabato, who added that the criticisms of the festivities are "utterly ridiculous."

Others say that the lavish spending might appear insensitive so shortly after the Dec. 26 tsunamis. At least 162,000 people are known dead in more than 20 countries.

"It seems out of place to have this national party to celebrate an inauguration in light of this huge disaster,” said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (search) in California.

Krieger and others say it would be a symbolic gesture for Bush to scale back the festivities.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Krieger. “It would be such an obvious way for the president to contribute rather than celebrating by hosting a party.”

Others write off such comments as partisan. “It’s petty and silly,” said Republican media strategist Monty Warner, who added that the size of the inauguration doesn't suggest the president is insensitive. “Look at what we have done overseas in terms of tsunami aid. This is just one more gripe,” Warner said.

Terry Madonna, public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College, called the whole debate over the celebration a "tempest in a teapot."

"There's probably nothing the president can do to make [Democrats] happy," he said, "None of it, in the long run, really matters."

But one 30-year Republican activist, who prefers to remain anonymous, told FOXNews.com that the response from the president's backers misses the point.

"(It) just strikes me as pretentious and unseemly. Millions of people are without homes or running water," he said. "Do we really want the visual for a large segment of the Muslim world — people we'll need to fight the War on Terror (search) — to be fat cats dancing amid ice sculptures and champagne fountains?"