It is Sunday on the Mall in Washington DC and, under a fresh sky, America has arrived at the Big Party. On the ceremonial boulevard between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, on soggy lawns, a tent city has arisen, dedicated to the pursuit of fun on this first day of Bill Clinton's inaugural journey.

The sky is blue, the buildings white. Everyone is wearing badges with slogans that involve the word Hope, the little town in Arkansas which has provided so tasty a metaphor for this new administration. But you notice that in a city which is 76 per cent black, the faces are largely white.

We are here, all us Americans, to celebrate a pudgy, middle-class, middle-aged guy from a hick city in a backwoods state, an American who tried harder and won the race, the 42nd President. American dream stuff.

Is it that story? Or is it the other one, in which America, fed up to the teeth with Bush and with nothing else on offer, went to bed with the last available guy in the bar, and will wake up with a terrible hangover?

One of the problems with George Bush was that he had no fantasy about him, no distinct style, nothing anyone could hang on to. But Bill Clinton, with his feverish insistence on youth - all that jogging and sax-playing and rock music and burger-eating - is a kind of triumph of style, of packaged populism with a brain. His favourite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he says; his favourite movie, High Noon. He knows his Elvis, too.

All week, Saddam is throwing Bush the big farewell. And, for his part, Clinton has made too many promises he cannot keep. The budget bloats. But forget it.

Today, almost everything is free - craft exhibitions, kids' games, music. Booker T and the MGs bring you their sound of the Sixties unmolested by time, then there's Los Lobos, Wynton Marsalis, Linda Ronstadt. The week will be saturated with music in all its Americo-infinite variety. That this is a generational change is certain; whether rock'n'roll can survive government annexation is another matter.

At another part of the Mall, towards dusk, an orchestra plays Fanfare for the Common Man at the Lincoln Memorial. In a camel- hair greatcoat, the actor James Earl Jones opens the ceremonies; to most Americans, his stentorian voice pretty much resembles God's. 'We begin again,' he intones. 'An American reunion.'

Through the monumental marble statue, as if from between big Abe Lincoln's legs, come the Clintons; they look tiny, tentative. He is uneasy as he delivers his first military salute. On huge screens the performers do their thing: Tony Bennett, Ray Charles. Aretha Franklin in a politically incorrect mink belts out Respect. There is a special inaugural 'rap' song. There is Bob Dylan, who looks old and fat. In three hundred yards of what appears to be an American flag, Diana Ross starts reaching out and touching people.

Elsewhere, reality intrudes. On a piece of pavement nicknamed 'Chalk Walk', folk have expressed themselves in coloured crayon on the pavement: 'Forget the fairy-tale, assert your sexuality, you can be feminine and still be a feminist.' 'Smoke dope.' 'Perot for 96.' 'R. Vavruska Esq, Vermont law school, cum laude 1991, Clinton-Gore volunteer, looking for a job.'

'Hey, babe, how about a buck for a cappuccino?' As I leave an expensive party, a homeless man runs alongside. Regarding my baseball cap with the pop-up president on it, he says: 'This Clinton lady, she snubbing a homeless man.'

All week there are parties. Some Hollywood types are said to have had their noses put out of joint because they haven't been getting their due star treatment, but there are plenty here. Bobby de Niro and his entourage kiss air and rub shoulders with Donna Karan and her entourage; Ted Danson orates on whales; Kathleen Turner oozes about how glamour has arrived in DC. Everyone is fortysomething, and politically correct and awfully democratic except in the sharing of limos. A passionate Oklahoma Democrat mutters: 'All this Hollywood trash coming in to take over are like ants on a sugar cube.'

All week, tickets are sold for big money. Arkansans, it is rumoured, arriving in DC cannot afford a thing and are selling their tickets to the ball. The hookers are not doing well either. A lady in fishnet tights tells me that even the 'dollars 40 nookie break' isn't selling.

At the Gala on Monday night, Barry Manilow does 'America the Beautiful' and Tipper Gore opens the food bank for those among the needy who have been invited. There are US Marine bands who resemble singing waiters, Judy Collins sings 'Amazing Grace', Goldie Hawn says warm fuzzy things and everyone waits for Jacko.

Michael Jackson pours out his heart, singing 'Heal the World' as children in various types of ethnic attire encircle him on stage. A group of young cancer patients are here, too, and one, a child undergoing chemotherapy, watches impassively, bald as an android. But what everyone is really waiting for is . . .

'My name is Barbra,' she says, and it's all there - the nails, the hair, the legs, the black evening suit strictly cut and very sexy, the skirt slit to the perfect thigh. 'Why are you looking at that monitor?' she chides. 'I'm here] In the flesh] Me]'

Streisand has not performed in public for 10 years; there is pandemonium. Everyone - kids, boomers, oldies, wrinklies - goes bananas. Streisand has apparently nearly attained the rank of Frank Sinatra. She even has a stool to

sit on.

At the Washington Hilton, four or five thousand women gather for a lunch for Emily's List, an organisation which raises money to elect women to political office. Striding towards lunch are thousands of women, in sensible shoes and stiletto heels, lawyers, doctors, accountants, led by Pat Schroeder, Congresswoman from Colorado. Women in cloth coats and fur coats, black women and white women and a woman in a wheelchair with a flag in sequins on her sweater. These women are ready for business; the new Amazonia is coming.

'Barbara Bush made America safe for matrons in fake pearls,' says one women. 'Hillary Clinton is making it safe for women in ballgowns with briefcases,' says a more humorous sister. 'Hillary,' another says sternly, 'is making America safe for smart women.'

As limo-lock grips the city, at the Health and Human Services building is the other inaugural ball; call it the ball for the homeless. Trestle tables covered in linoleum are loaded with food donated by Washington restaurants. The Hard Rock Cafe has whipped up tasty sandwiches on white bread. The servers are all white, all in rubber gloves, as they dole out pizza and turkey and ice-cream.

Most of the ball-goers are black - about half are bureaucrats, the rest homeless - and they sit at table eating and watching the few dancers. On the dance floor, with a short, peppy man, a six-foot woman dances energetically, keeping a tight hold on her family-size handbag. Around the edge, reporters shuffle and stare.

There is a stir as a celebrity arrives: it is the defrocked mayor of Washington DC, Marion Barry, who was busted for drugs. From the stage, he plays the crowd. 'I've been your friend, haven't I?' One of the organisers, casting a self- satisfied gaze over the assembly, says: 'I always think it's so nice for the common folk to have something to do.'

As if God were in charge, inaugural day dawns with riverine clarity: Wednesday is flawless. Early, the tidal wave of a million people sweeps across the city to converge on the Capitol. High on top of the Rotunda, the sharpshooters are in place. Tiny figures in the distance move into the ceremonial stands and the band begins to play. When Dan Quayle is introduced, there is hissing, even now.

And then, at high noon, the chief justice, Byron R White, steps forward and swears in Bill Clinton as the 42nd President of the United States. There he is finally, in the very middle of the thing, this enormous thing, a mixture of Derby Day, Disney parade, royal garden party, opening of Parliament, wedding and rock concert.

The swearing-in is over in less than a minute. The generation of instant gratification will want Bill to fix things now, to make it all fun again. But the speech doesn't inspire, not the words or the oratory; there is no music there.

It is inaugural night, time for the balls. Everyone is in hot pursuit of the constitutional right to happiness. There are balls where there is nothing to eat except peanuts. Balls attended by men in black tie in wheelchairs. Hispanic balls. An animal rights ball. A Tennessee ball where Paul Simon sings 'Call Me Al' for Al Gore. Balls where Bill Clinton plays that sax. The hot ticket is the MTV ball, where the women wear skin-tight lycra and Bianca Jagger struts her stuff in white silk petals. Groups such as Megadeath say things such as 'It's Our Turn Now'.

The morning after, as Washington cleans up, the weather literally turns. The city, hung over, is wrapped in a dismal grey fog. Saddam is still alive and well in Iraq; Clinton's senior female appointee, Zoe Baird, has stepped down as candidate for attorney-general; it was discovered that she had hired illegal aliens as domestic help. The economy has not changed. There is Bosnia and Somalia; there is the budget. The Clinton packaging has been excellent; the adventures of Bill awesome. But as the whole event recedes on this dull morning after, no one can tell if Clinton

will change anything at all, even the tone, or if he will just be a smiling cardboard cut-out like the pop-up characters on my inaugural rap cap.

(Photographs omitted)