The Presidential Inauguration: Power passes on a day of splendour

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The Independent Online
WHEN IT was all over and the throng was rolling in slow waves towards Constitution Avenue, the polished green helicopter of the President's flight rose gracefully into the sky. The pushing stopped for a moment and everyone looked up and waved. 'Bye-bye, Mr Wizard,' a man behind me called after it.

And so it was done. A once president was being borne away to retirement and memories of power while Americans everywhere contemplated a new Commander-in-Chief. William Jefferson Clinton had taken the oath and the nation was his for four years. Perhaps, if he fares well, for even longer.

The ceremony had amply matched the optimism of the moment. The white dome of the Capitol shone crystalline against the kind of blue sky that blesses Washington only occasionally in winter, the splendour accentuated by the bunting and giant red, white and blue flags of the union, hung vertically between the columns.

Thrust forward was the podium on which all eyes, and the television cameras of the world, were focused. Bullet-proof glass gave it an apron surround, high enough to protect Mr Clinton up to his shoulders but not so high as to obscure his view of us - or ours of him.

On either side were banked the hundreds of dignitaries, members of the Senate and House and governors of the 50 states. Here was Jim Florio of New Jersey, gazing down the Mall, there Texas's Ann Richards, eyes fixed on her new leader, her jaws, as ever, chewing gum. Most in the crowd, stretching far back down the Mall towards the obelisk of the Washington Monument, had been there since early, icy morning.

Seagulls bobbed on the giant fountain pool at the foot of Capitol Hill. As the hour of the swearing-in approached - 11.59 precisely - ushers urged us to take our seats and security marksmen dressed in black began to pace on the dome's balconies.

First out from the scarlet canopy behind the platform were the vice-presidential wives, incoming and outgoing, Tipper Gore and Marilyn Quayle. A polite murmur rose from the throng.

Next appeared Barbara and Hillary. Louder applause.

Cheers rose for Dan Quayle and, specifically, Al Gore.

Then, for President Bush, we stood and clapped.

And finally, to a surge of cries and whoops, emerged the grey head of Bill Clinton.

After so long a campaign and so drawn-out a transition, the oath itself, administered by the Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, seemed bewilderingly quick.

Minutes before, Mr Gore had taken the oath and Marilyn Horne, the mezzo-soprano, had sung an American medley. Mr Clinton raised his hand, spoke the hallowed words, and it was over. It was only Mr Rehnquist adding 'congratulations' that brought it home. Clinton was President, Bush a private citizen.

Positioned directly opposite Mr Clinton and next to Barbara, Mr Bush had maintained the same slightly stretched smile of gracious acceptance that he has worn since his defeat on 3 November. The figures ranged on his side of the steps were mostly dressed in black, as if to symbolise the mourning of the Republican Party. Behind Mr Clinton there were bright reds and whites.

And so the helicopter, that, according to ex-presidential protocol, no longer bore the name Marine One, lifted George and Barbara away to Andrews Airforce Base and to a waiting jumbo, that was no longer Air Force One.

For the Clintons, it was inside Congress for lunch and later the slow, ecstatic ride and stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to - at long last - the White House.