Sworn in by the father of the Senate, 96-year-old Strom Thurmond, Justice Rehnquist administered the same oath to the assembled senators. Instructing them to raise their right hands, he asked them to swear to "do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws, so help you God". "I do," they replied in chorus. So began the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, and with it an epic contest between the three branches of the US political system - the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. It reconvenes next Thursday. But even as the US Constitution was facing its ultimate test, America - at least America outside Washington - was yawning, seemingly neither concerned nor apprehensive about the fate of the President or the country.
For only the second time in 130 years, and the first time this century, a president is subject to trial by the Senate that could result in his removal from office. The charges against him - that he perjured himself in testimony to a federal grand jury and obstructed the course of justice - are serious. The basis for the charges - the attempted concealment of a sexual affair with a White House trainee - is as tawdry and apparently petty as anything that comes before the courts.
The dissonance between the two is a snapshot of America in the time of Bill Clinton. Only the second president to be impeached, he enjoyed, as his trial opened, a public approval rating of 63 per cent.
Yesterday's historic events had opened with the procession from the House to the Senate chamber of the 13 Representatives - designated "managers" - who will formulate the case for the prosecution. Their leader, Henry Hyde, read out from the Senate floor, at first haltingly then firmly, the two articles of impeachment passed by the House. President Clinton, he read, "has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States". The senators, ordered to be silent "on pain of imprisonment", obeyed.
But although the proceedings complied strictly with constitutional provisions, what follows is still uncertain. Once all the senators had confirmed their oath, the Majority leader, Trent Lott, proposed an adjournment. The trial proper, with opening statements from both sides, is due to open next Thursday.
The reason for the delay is the behind the scenes battle being fought over the nature of the trial, specifically over the calling of witnesses. As the White House knows, the appearance before the Senate of such names as Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Vernon Jordan and Betty Currie could have a direct bearing on the President's survival.
In what seemed a last gambit yesterday, the White House undertook that the President's lawyers would not contest evidence already presented to the House, if witnesses were not called. But the Senate reaction was cool. "The Senate is going to decide what is going to be allowed in and what won't. Ultimately we'll make that decision and it will be one that both the White House and the House of Representatives will have to live with," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
His words were a hint that as the Senate embarks on a trial with neither agenda nor timetable, their pledge to "do impartial justice" may represent a greater danger to the President than the alternately yawning and appalled American public suspects.