This is the 55th inauguration day in US history, and in the Cornwell household at least it could not be more special. Our son's high school has been selected to take part in the parade after the President is sworn in. He will be marching in the school's colour guard, carrying the flag of the District of Colombia. A handsome blue uniform has been lovingly pressed, shiny military dress shoes are ready for action. This is his big day.
It is George W Bush's big day as well. An inauguration is this nation's equivalent of a coronation, a four-yearly, utterly American mix of reverent idealism, crass commercialism, noisy protest and ruthless networking. Didn't they get rid of a real King George 229 years ago? Indeed, but few historians would dispute that the office of president is more monarchical than ever. Increasingly, it is a battleground for competing dynasties. Once there were the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. Today it is the House of Bush, and who knows, the House of Clinton. In 2008, the election could pit the brother of the present incumbent against the wife of his predecessor.
But that is to get ahead of the story. The heart of today's proceedings is the address Mr Bush will deliver immediately after he takes the oath of office at noon. Its themes are already known, a ringing commitment of America's mission to spread democracy and liberty across the world, and to build an "ownership society" of enterprise and prosperity at home. He is an iconoclast, whose ambition is to enter history as one of the great transformational presidents. His first term was shaped by the terrorist attacks of September 2001. If he has his way the second will be dominated by domestic initiatives: social security reform, an overhaul of the tax code, and an effort to stamp out excesses of tort legislation.
Some inaugural addresses have been memorable; Lincoln's second in 1865 as the Civil War was ending ("with malice towards none, with charity for all") is regarded as the greatest of all. Then there was Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 call to arms in the depths of the Depression - "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" - and JFK's stirring call in 1961: "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Most have been undistinguished. "Sonorous nonsense" was how H L Mencken described Warren Harding's effort in 1921. (It would be unfair this morning to recall another Mencken prophesy, that "on some great and glorious day ... the White House will be adorned by a downright moron".)
The rule is, the shorter the speech the better. In 1845, William Harrison droned on for an hour and three quarters in the bitter cold. He caught pneumonia and died a month later. This president will not make that mistake.
But his constraints are obvious. Even his excellent speechwriter Michael Gerson, so fluent in uplifting religious imagery, will find it hard to summon up a call to national unity, when almost 50 per cent of the population can barely tolerate the ground Mr Bush walks on.
So on to the fun part. The official theme is "Celebrating Freedom, and Honouring Service", but the emphasis is on celebration. At a cost of $40m plus (£21m), this inauguration is the most expensive ever. Footing the bill will be the usual suspects: wealthy Bush cronies, drug and energy companies. They will be rewarded for their contributions (up to $250,000 apiece) by candlelit dinners with George and Laura, dozens of tickets to tonight's nine official inaugural balls - and of course discreet political favours down the line). Such is the American way.
But is the lavish spending not out of place when south Asia has been overwhelmed by the deadliest natural disaster of modern times, when the US itself is up to its neck in debt, and American lives and treasure are being squandered in a bloody war? After all, in 1945, FDR (admittedly so ill he would be dead in less than three months) held his fourth inaugural in the White House, offering guests a cold chicken salad. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson decreed there would be no parties, on the grounds that jollifications were inappropriate when most of the world (though not yet the US) was at war.
Not so, insists the Bush administration, which has made a point of presenting citizens with tax cuts, not demands for sacrifice, as it wages war. Of the nine balls only one, the "Commander-in-Chief" ball reserved for service personnel, is free. For the others, tickets run at $400 upwards.
But if freedom is this inauguration's leitmotiv, the capital of the land of liberty is under unprecedented lockdown. Security around presidents has been tight before: in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, Pinkerton guards (forerunners of the Secret Service) protected Lincoln as his train passed through Baltimore, a hotbed of secessionism.
But if America was then even more divided than today, in the mid-19th century there was no tradition of suicide bombers. Today, nothing is left to chance. Some 20,000 officers are being deployed. Anti-aircraft batteries stand guard, and Coast Guard gunboats patrol the Potomac. The latest scare (although authorities admit there is no sign of a terrorist threat) is that al- Qa'ida will use limousines filled with gas canisters as bombs.
Certainly, there will be no repeat of 1953, when the newly inaugurated Dwight Eisenhower was lassoed during the parade by a stuntman cowboy called Montie Montana. Ike knew what was going to happen, but an irritated Secret Service did not. This year, the rope would bounce off the bullet-proof glass screen protecting the presidential viewing box, while Montie would be wrestled to the ground by security men. Democrats may have left town to drown their sorrows, but thousands of protesters have arrived, even thoughwould-be egg throwers will not get within a quarter-mile of the White House.
On Friday the barricades will be removed, and normality will return. For President Bush, it will be business as usual, and perhaps a moment's reflection on recent second terms, marked by Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky. In politics, only the unexpected is certain. But for Cornwell Jnr, no such concerns will linger, only the memory of a once-in-a-lifetime day.Reuse content