Coronation, Texas-style

With US soldiers dying in Iraq, he could have kept it low-key. Instead, he wants $40m worth of balls

They say that a presidential inauguration sets the tone for the forthcoming term in office. How depressing if that turns out to be the case for 2005-2009: I have several close friends, including one senior official who was in the Clinton administration, whose dread and foreboding are such that they will actually be leaving town for the 18-21 January festivities.

No fewer than 35,000 people, most of them local fundraisers and donors to the Bush-Cheney campaign, will be pouring in to Washington to attend nine inauguration balls at $150 per person - dreadful, sweaty events, where drink is scarce and harassed waiters struggle to shuttle bad food to too many tables. Those attending delude themselves that they have finally penetrated the heart of Washington power, receiving an aphrodisiacal frisson as they watch their president dance with his beloved wife (in fact, Bush is not a dancer and, I predict, will spend only two or three minutes at each ball: he has his 9.30 bedtime to consider, after all).

We will be awash with Dick Cheney 2005 calendars (showing the great man fishing, riding a horse and so on), 3,000 Stetson hats that are being brought in by the Stetson hat company in Garland, Texas, and thousands of pairs of hastily turned-out cowboy boots. The official "champagne" of the celebrations will be Korbel, not actually champagne but an ersatz sparkling substitute from California. Guy Hovis, a 63-year-old former crooner on The Lawrence Welk Show (Welk was a purveyor of "easy- listening music" in the television series that began in 1955), will sing a song written by John Ashcroft, the outgoing attorney general. "Televi-sion fixture Kelsey Grammer" will MC a "salute-to-the-military" concert that will foreshadow the inauguration's "Celebrating Freedom, Honouring Service" theme.

Enough said? It also says much about Bush and his administration, I fear, that the inauguration festivities are being held at all. A conservative estimate is that this 55th inauguration will cost a record $40m, not including the $17.3m in security and related costs that will be charged to the beleaguered taxpayers of Washington. This is at a time when even Bush loyalists in DC are beginning to wring their hands over Iraq, and when the tsunami is still fresh in people's minds; unlike Bush, Bill Clinton spent less on his second inauguration than on his first, and FDR marked his wartime fourth term with a White House lunch of chicken salad and pound cake, while Woodrow Wilson deemed it "too frivolous, too undignified" to have a ball.

No such self-doubt will spoil the boy prince's big week. Bush's lack of awareness of what is happening outside his bubble says much about how he views the world: he believes it is a great, almost mystical, achievement that he has overcome multiple adversities to become president and reign over all of us. We must therefore celebrate. What makes this worrying is that his self-confidence is so brittle: in his past 18 years of sobriety he seems to have masked whatever were the underlying causes of his alcoholism with an aggressive, simplistic insistence that the world is divided into the moral and the immoral, the black and the white, the dangerous bogeymen constantly threatening to overturn all that is good.

The Iraq war may now be costing $1bn a week, but Laura Bush will still be wearing "an ice-blue and silver embroidered tulle V-neck dress with a matching duchess satin coat by Seventh Avenue designer Oscar de la Renta" - which, the Washington Post thankfully assures us, will be "youthful and feminine, not sexy - the epitome of good taste". And Mrs Bush can also be sensitive in a way that fits with the times: her other outfit will suggest "a certain chic understanding that restraint can be the most powerful form of expression". Thank heavens for that.

Though the Bushes are sticklers for what they see as order, dreamily returning in this way to the reassuring conformities of The Lawrence Welk Show and the Fifties, they are still hobbled by the shadows of the much more heavyweight first President Bush and his matriarchal wife Barbara; official invitations to the coming events break all the etiquette protocols of their world by invoking "President and Mrs Laura Bush" (rather than the apparently correct "President and Mrs Bush") - because it was feared recipients might think the invitations were from the elder Bush and his wife.

Thus, even at the inauguration, Dad remains a looming presence. Indeed, the younger Bush is still overcompensating for the Oedipal nightmares about his father that friends tell me he cannot expunge; his fears of not measuring up then translate into major presidential decisions and actions. The latest outburst of petulance is to have General Brent Scowcroft, Bush I's national security adviser, sacked summarily from the chairmanship of the president's foreign intelligence advisory board. Had Scowcroft, a devoutly religious man, kept quiet about Iraq, he would have survived; but he committed the cardinal sin of voicing his deep concerns about civil war there, first privately to Bush and only then publicly. Loyalty is thus the only "character" trait that Bush is able to see as important. Competence is not. The word "realist", says Scowcroft, has now become a pejorative in Bushworld.

Now we are seeing attempts by Bush to exorcise those familial and personal legacies by spinning increasingly ludicrous myths about himself. You might think that a man who hails from a family built on Wall Street speculation and oil, who was a grandson of a US senator, the eldest son of a president, who went to Andover and Yale despite a poor academic record, who was a member of the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, as was his father and grandfather before him - and so on - might concede that he has had a leg-up or two in the past from his family background.

Not a bit of it. Bush sees himself as somehow having come up the hard way, identifying with the totally fictional story he weaved when he appointed Bernard Kerik, a former New York police commissioner, to be director of homeland security on 3 December. He presented Kerik as an authentic rags-to-riches pioneer who was a hero of 11 September 2001; the wretched man, who withdrew from his nomination on 11 December, was actually a scumbag who was wildly unsuitable for the job on practically every count. He had used a Manhattan flat donated for the use of exhausted 9/11 police for extramarital trysts, made $6.2m from a stun-gun company while still in office and is now being investigated for "ties" to mob crime. But Bush preferred a romanticised version that accorded with the way he sees the world; reality could not be allowed to intrude.

Heartbreakingly banal and stultifying though these inauguration celebrations are sure to be, they will certainly tell us more about what we can expect during the second term of the country's 43rd president. We now know that he is a man who resolutely clings to myths rather than reality, who gravitates to shielding, garish pageantry while genuinely believing he is being "dignified and classy". He values loyalty to the cause above all else, and sees himself as that biblically ordained cause.

He never forgets a slight, either, and as with Scowcroft, comes down hard on those who offend his notions of the right and proper obeisance due his kingdom.

Even more worryingly, the festivities' inordinate display of grand-scale militarism will involve Kelsey Grammer introducing much footage of Soviet-style celebrations of US military might, of aircraft carriers cutting gloriously through the waves and Stealth fighter jets turning thrillingly in midair. Bush and Cheney, those two intrepid draft-dodgers, will observe a military flypast from the Ellipse and will then review troops before the inaugural parade - which will feature a stream of military bands, caissons rumbling majestically along, hundreds of motorcycle outriders and uniformed guards in sunglasses toting machine-guns (I know because I have seen them rehearsing).

I will be at just one inauguration event, a reception at the Phillips Gallery that neither Bush nor Cheney will, I feel reasonably confident, be attending. The Four Seasons Hotel, a skip and a jump from me, is meanwhile offering an eight-night package for $100,000. The Ritz-Carlton has sold 385 of its 386 rooms, but is keeping that last suite open for four nights at $150,000. Money will thus be made, myths propagated, and the poor food and pervasive tackiness will send many away disappointed. But the second term of President George W Bush will have got under way in precisely the manner in which it means to go on.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Coronation, Texas-style