Clinton calls for a new spirit

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The Independent Online
Demanding that the United States rise above race, partisanship and intolerance, President Clinton yesterday urged reconciliation on a divided Congress, and a "new spirit of community" on his countrymen, as they moved together into the new millennium.

Speaking at the solemnest of all American settings, on the west terrace of the US Capitol immediately after having been administered the Oath of Office by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Mr Clinton used the last inaugural address of the 20th century to call for a "land of new promise" that could draw full benefit from the information revolution changing human society.

Coatless on a bright but chilly day, he pleaded for Republicans and Democrats alike to work together. "The American people returned to office a President of one party and a Congress of the other," he said. "They did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore." It was wrong "to waste the precious gift of time on acrimony and division".

But that exhortation will be tested within the next 24 hours. Two hours before Mr Clinton was sworn in, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did indeed unanimously confirm Madeleine Albright as his new Secretary of State. But as early as today the House must vote on the recommended $300,000 fine and ethics reprimand for the Speaker, Newt Gingrich - an occasion bound to have Democrats calling anew for his head, and Republicans speaking of a witch-hunt.

"Nothing big ever came of being small," the President insisted to the the dignitaries close by and the hundreds of thousands gathered on the Washington mall beyond. He expounded familiar themes of personal responsibility and the need to overcome prejudice and America's "constant curse" of race hatred. "These forces nearly destroyed our nation in the past. They plague us still."

By their very nature, inaugural addresses are built upon grand phrases, not legislative fine print, and Mr Clinton's 20-minute speech was no exception. Centrist in tone, visionary in imprint, it sketched out a 21st century America enjoying the fruits of the information revolution, in an era not of "big government", but "a government strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves."

In one sense, he summoned the shade of Theodore Roosevelt, the president credited with harnessing America's emerging industrial might to the common good at the start of this century. Yesterday Mr Clinton set himself the goal of adjusting the US to the era of the Internet and exploding information technology. But there were shades of his boyhood hero John Kennedy too, the "Land of New Promise" recalling the "New Frontier" of 36 years ago.

In keeping with the introverted national mood, foreign policy scarcely featured, beyond a re-statement of America's position as "the world's indispensable nation", and its commitment to spreading democracy around the planet.

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