Thousands on Capitol Hill and billions on television around the globe watched the simple but majestic ceremony, America's greatest constitutional rite, as the 46-year-old Arkansan succeeded George Bush as the most powerful man on earth.
His entry into the White House signalled the end of 12 years of Republican rule and a generational changing of the guard unmatched since John Kennedy took office 32 years earlier.
In language reminiscent of Kennedy's inaugural address, he urged his countrymen to come together and share responsibility for their common future. They would have to make sacrifices, and 'break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or each other'.
The time of 'deadlock and drift' was over. 'A new season of American renewal has begun.
'Today a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues.'
And in a deliberate gesture to underline the infusion of youth and vigour into Washington, Mr Clinton braved a brilliant, chilly day to walk coatless down Pennsylvania Avenue at the head of the traditional inaugural parade from Capitol Hill back to the White House, hugging his wife Hillary and waving to the huge crowds that lined the route.
After a career often marked by long- windedness, and a transition much criticised for its sluggishness, his inaugural speech was one of the shortest and crispest on record.
The phrasing was soaring and idealistic, but the delivery was forceful, simple and businesslike - a symbol of how the third youngest President intends to make a swift start to the daunting problems that face him.
The entire world seemed to have paused for the occasion - even Iraq, where the Pentagon reported no violations of the ceasefire offered by President Saddam Hussein.
But while Mr Clinton's address concentrated on domestic affairs, he signalled there would be no foreign policy disengagement by his administration, as he focused on problems closer to home.
'Today, as an old order passes, the new world is more free but less stable,' the President said. 'Communism's collapse has called forth old animosities and new dangers. Clearly America must continue to lead the world we did so much to make.'
While the country was rebuilding at home, 'we will not shrink from the challenges' beyond its borders. 'Together with our friends and allies, we will work to shape change, lest it engulf us.' Signalling a continued stern line on Iraq, and possibly greater US involvement in the Balkan crisis, Mr Clinton warned that America would act where its interests were at risk, or where the conscience of the international community was stirred, 'with peaceful diplomacy when possible, with force when neccessary'.
In the previous 24 hours, as he confessed at a congressional lunch, he had barely slept. At a morning prayer service in a Washington church, tears at one point trickled from his eyes. But at noon on the Capitol steps, he was calm, composed and confident when, using his full name of William Jefferson Clinton, he took the 35-word presidential oath from the Chief Justice, William Rehnquist.
On 10 occasions in his 14-minute speech, Mr Clinton used the word 'change', the constant theme of last year's triumphant election campaign. But his tone was realistic and pragmatic, acknowledging the urgent need to cut the dollars 300bn ( pounds 190bn) federal deficit, reform health care and revitalise the working of American government.
To achieve those goals, sacrifice would be required, 'not for its own sake, but for our own sake'. Nor would anything be achieved without a cleansing of the ways of Washington: too often it was a place of 'intrigue and calculation'. The capital must be given 'back to those to whom it belongs', the new President declared, in a foretaste of what is likely to be a populist style of government.
Later, at a formal lunch on Capitol Hill, he appealed for a bipartisan effort to end the 'gridlock' between the White House and Congress that contributed to the domestic inertia which sealed the failure of Mr Bush's one-term Presidency. 'I can't succeed without Congress; we have to work together.'
Mr Clinton's first deeds, however, will be unilateral, by executive order. By the end of the week, he is expected to have signed decrees enforcing a strict new ethics code for members of his administration and abolishing the 'gag rule' imposed by Mr Bush banning abortion counselling at federal clinics. Formal Senate installation of key office holders, including the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, followed within hours of the inauguration, to ensure an unbroken transfer of power in key departments.
In fact, the smoothness of the hand- over was evident to the end. With no trace of rancour, the 68-year-old Mr Bush met the Clinton and Gore families and other dignitaries at the White House in mid-morning before travelling with his successor in the presidential limousine to Capitol Hill for the swearing-in
In his speech, Mr Clinton paid tribute to the man he vanquished in November, saluting Mr Bush's 'half-century of service to America'. Before finally departing from the building he had hoped to live in for another four years, the outgoing President took a last look around the Oval Office, and left a note on the desk for his successor.
Full text of speech, page 8
Middle East hopes, page 11
Leading article, page 24
Television review, page 21Reuse content