President George W. Bush launched his inaugural celebrations by thanking two groups that played major roles in his election to a second term -- the military that prosecuted the war in Iraq and his most ardent and generous political supporters.
On the first of four days of nonstop festivities that some have criticized as too extravagant amid war, deficits and natural disaster, the president and first lady Laura Bush crisscrossed Washington into the evening Tuesday to hobnob with soldiers, young Republicans and Republican bigwigs.
Bush takes the oath of office today to begin his next four years in the White House.
Bush gave four speeches throughout the day, but the centerpiece was a salute to the military. The more than two-hour extravaganza was held at a sports arena in downtown Washington, its seats only about half-full with thousands of uniformed military and their families, including soldiers recuperating at a nearby Army hospital from wounds suffered in Iraq. The event was also piped to troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The salute, complete with pop stars and comics alongside somber documentaries, was meant to dispel talk that the festivities -- which could cost more than US$50 million, with millions more in taxpayer dollars for security -- should be toned down.
Later in the day, a young crowd, bathed in orange and green spotlights, cheered Bush and his wife at a local armory. Entertainers who included the rock band "3 Doors Down" warmed up the crowd for the president.
Behind closed doors and several hours apart, he also attended two private receptions for supporters -- one for Republican National Committee members and the other hosted by Jeanne Johnson Phillips, chairwoman of Bush's inaugural committee which raised the millions in private donations that funded the bulk of the events.
The president told the party faithful at the RNC party that he has no intention of acting like a lame duck -- even as he said he is aware that the battle for the Republican mantle for the 2008 presidential election will lead the party to eventually move beyond him.
"You didn't elect me to do small things," Bush said, according to people inside. "I've got four years here. I'm going to use them."
Before leaving the White House, the president held a third, one-hour practice session for his inaugural address with aides in the family theater. The almost-complete, 17-minute speech, which he will deliver after being sworn in on a giant platform outside the Capitol, is intended to lay out Bush's second-term themes: Advancing freedom abroad while building an "ownership society" at home, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Bush entered the "Saluting Those Who Serve" event to enthusiastic applause, just as about a half-dozen people were stepping forward to recite the names of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who have died while on military duty.
In addition to solemn dedications to wars present and past, the event featured comedy routines, including imitations of former President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Saturday Night Live cast member Darrell Hammond and a Top 10 list of "Signs that your commanding officer is nuts" delivered via video by talk-show host David Letterman.