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IF PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATIONS ARE ALL ABOUT rhetoric and image, the takeaway from Bush’s second swearing-in is full of surreal disconnects.

At the same time Bush delivered a speech calling for the spread of freedom around the world, the televised pictures revealed a D.C. in a state of siege, with steel barricades, sniffer dogs and security check points at every juncture. Not surprisingly, protesters were pushed to the background, denied choice spots along the parade route, and, inevitably in the case of anarchists, hauled off by the cops.

Even the cost of the three-day extravaganza is at odds with a country still at war: Some $40 million is being lavished on the event even as the White House digs in its heels and refuses to set, or reveal, a timetable for exiting Iraq, an adventure that has already cost the U.S. well over $150 billion.

That deepening money pit hasn’t stopped the Republican faithful across the country from staging their own local inaugural shindigs, some 30,000 such gatherings, according to the official GOP Web site. Dems seem too demoralized to do anything much in response, many opting to drown their sorrows with pina coladas in the Caribbean. (A few diehards who stayed behind had enough humor left to organize an anti-ball billed as Billionaires for Bush’s Re-Coronation, but there was no early word on what entertainers braved that event.)

Trying to respond to critics who claim Bush himself has been insensitive to the needs of returning soldiers, a number of the wounded were tapped to mingle with the Republican elite and attend one or another of the nine official balls. Just what went through the minds of these brave but hapless youth (whose lives are forever changed by the war) as they chattered with politicos — few of whose own children have been put in harm’s way — I don’t even want to guess.

As for the entertainment factor last week, it was definitely tilted toward the pre-vetted and squeaky-clean.

At a youth concert attended by the Bush daughters Jan. 18, the tone was high-minded rather than hedonistic. Disney star Hilary Duff and “American Idol” winner Ruben Stoddard belted out ballads, but music icons like Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Elton John, et al. were nowhere to be seen. Rumor of an appearance by rapper Kid Rock, who bills himself as “the pimp of the nation,” were unfounded; rather, a band aptly named the Presidents of the U.S. got the gig to perform at one of the inaugural balls.

Among those “disinvited” at the last minute to play a role at the inaugural was, per a Washington Post item, ’60s radical icon Dennis Hopper, who was to have introduced an unknown hero from the Iraq war. Had the organizers accidentally mistaken him for Dennis Miller?

Perhaps the only personality who manages to straddle both sides of the political divide with a sense of humor is California’s Governator: Arnold Schwarzenegger attended the Golden Globes in Hollywood Jan. 16 and was front and center in Washington for the climactic ceremony Jan. 20. A lot more showbiz folks could use his savvy in getting through the next four years.