Bill's perfect mix: celebrity, status, and shopping

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The Independent Online
Ever wanted to own an exact replica of a Christmas card sent by a president of the United States? Well, now for $16.95 - a shade over pounds 10 - you may purchase and keep on your mantlepiece in perpetuity the very same card the Clintons sent their family and friends over the 1996 holiday season.

This is but one of numerous opportunities to spend money afforded the tens of thousands of Americans flocking into Washington this weekend for the festivities to mark Bill Clinton's second presidential inauguration. The official inauguration store is offering 2ft statuettes of Mr Clinton holding a saxophone for $75; cufflinks bearing the inaugural seal for $35; and remaindered hardback copies of the president's recently published political manifesto, Between Hope and History, for a bargain $5 each.

But those unfortunate patriots unable to make it to the capital to witness the quadrennial solemnities, the culmination of which will be Mr Clinton's swearing-in tomorrow on the Capitol steps, have not been forgotten.

For an undisclosed fee the inaugural organising committee has authorised QVC, America's 24-hour TV shopping channel, to market presidential memorabilia on air. Now, just a phone call away, is the chance to purchase an official inaugural plate, complete with gift box and certificate of authenticity, for $40; a range of bronze, silver and gold medals (top price $800) bearing the likenesses of Mr Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore; and, for $45, a set of commemorative motor vehicle licence plates.

At the pageant itself, big spenders are royally catered for. Washington's Ritz Hotel is offering a $30,000 weekend package in the presidential suite that includes a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, 24-hour butler service and a champagne-and-caviar dinner for 12 in the suite's private dining room. For $53,000, however, the Grand Hyatt is offering all of the above plus tickets to all 14 inaugural balls, a video camera and - for the lucky lady - a replica of the gown Jacqueline Kennedy wore at the 1961 presidential inaugural.

But is the main event itself worth it? If you are one of the 70,000 people attending one of the balls (ticket prices start at $150; gown rental rates go up to $5,000) then the snob value, certainly, is high. You will be able to tell your friends that you rubbed shoulders, possibly even shook hands, with TV personalities like President Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. And, if you get really lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a genuine superstar, such as Kevin Costner or Michael Douglas.

The most coveted tickets are the 11,000 (long ago sold out at prices ranging from $100 to $3,000) for tonight's Presidential Gala, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder and the cast of a Broadway show called Bring on Da Noise, Bring on Da Funk, among others. The best seats go to those who contributed $100,000 or more to Mr Clinton's election coffers.

But what of the Great Unwashed, the 400,000 or so regular citizens expected to turn up in sub-zero temperatures at the Mall in Washington to gawp at the glittering proceedings from afar? No need to worry: apart from the comforting presence of a battalion of portable toilets and row upon row of merchandise booths to sate the American lust for fatuous acquisition, shelter will be provided by half a dozen vast heated tents.

They will house an extraordinary variety of events, at which - among others - feminist Betty Friedan, Nobel prizewinner Elie Wiesel, Barney the Dinosaur, Native American dancers, gospel choirs, samba schools and theGay Men's Chorus of Washington will appear, while floats and marching bands from all 50 states parade down Constitution Avenue, watched by 45,000 spectators each paying between $10 and $100.

The name coined by the organisers to embrace the inaugural activities is "An American Journey: Building a Bridge to the 21st Century". It sounds a convoluted way to describe the yearnings that define the essence of America, that bind the inhabitants of this great nation together: celebrity, status and shopping.

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