Marines and the ugly lads join pageant for America's coronation

Bill Clinton's inauguration was a song of love to the US, writes John Carlin

Washington - Earnest, adolescent, high-minded, tacky, commercial, ambitious, fabulously diverse and, above all, big, the festivities yesterday to mark Washington's four-yearly pageant, the presidential inauguration, achieved their objective - to capture the spirit of America.

From the steps of the historic Capitol, a Washington school choir sang a song of love for America, celebrating the mountains, the prairies and the oceans, the freedom, the peace and the harmony.

The vast crowds looked uplifted, rapt, but a confused foreign visitor could have been forgiven for imagining that he had stumbled on to the set of a Coca-Cola commercial. The event was a coronation, United States- style - sans ermine, sceptres and crowns, but teenage baton-twirlers, chocolate-box marching bands and Disney parade floats aplenty.

The official inaugural theme, picking up on President Bill Clinton's favourite election campaign slogan, was "An American Journey: Building a bridge to the 21st century". The purpose of the floats was to describe that journey, recount the history of the world's most successful nation through images on wheels.

A plaster-of-Paris revolutionary soldier beating a drum led the way ahead of a giant plaster-of-Paris scroll bearing the opening words of the US constitution ("We, the people...") in 18th-century script. Then a plaster- of-Paris eagle and then, the piece de resistance, a cartoon train covered in red and blue furry synthetic carpeting, closely followed by a stagecoach set in a landscape of polystyrene cacti and papier mache rocks.

As the present day loomed, the images become appropriately eclectic. One float bore on its prow the wings of the Kitty Hawk, on the prow a windmill, at the stern a transparent plastic bag filled with red confetti marked "blood plasma". Then a rocket trailing spray-painted cotton wool, two computer screens inside a cage adorned like a greenhouse and, perched on a parapet, a plaster-of-Paris man with ear mufflers aiming a black pistol in the general direction of a glittering gold Statue of Liberty.

The human element in the parade, viewed by President Clinton from inside a bullet-proof capsule in front of the White House, bore testimony to America's mad, magnificent variety. The US Marine Corps band and Company C, 8th Tank Battalion of Tallahassee, Florida, marched in fearsome lock- step ahead of a giant phalanx that included the Barrow Eskimo Dance Group, the Hub City Dancers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Covered Wagon, the James Madison University Marching "Royal Dukes", the Wildcat Wranglers, Mahina and the Polynesians, Bill the Mule, the Rasputin Mule Farm and Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson, which means the "Ugly Little Lads of Tucson".

The cheerfully uncritical crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue chomped hot dogs, waved little US flags, sported inaugural souvenir T-shirts and shot envious glances - for it was a long day - at the privileged few who had purchased road-side seats, price $10 to $100 a ticket.

A small bunch of anti-abortion protesters struck the big day's one discordant note. They lined a stretch 50 yards long on Pennsylvania Avenue, holding aloft large placards bearing photographs of bloody, hideously dismembered foetuses.

Otherwise, the mood was resolutely cheerful. Mr Clinton, sucking in the pomp and the adulation, was king for the day and even the congressional Republicans, at a time when US politics is defined by ad hominem squabbles, called a truce.

Today hostilities will resume, sincere as Mr Clinton's appeal was in his speech for an end to bipartisan bickering. But yesterday was US family day in Washington as the hundreds of thousands of revelling patriots on the Mall and the millions watching on television glowed with pride, thankful for the reminder that the US enters the 21st century unchallenged as the mightiest, richest, most innocently optimistic nation on earth.

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