The Presidential Inauguration: President Clinton sees the world through new eyes

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BILL CLINTON had been preparing for this moment for half his adult life - and yesterday it showed. The man who just 15 months ago was an obscure governor of a small southern state delivered a speech of strength, dignity and purpose which might - just conceivably - escape the instant oblivion which awaits most inaugural addresses. Above all it was brief.

Through the campaign, indeed most of his political career, Mr Clinton has had a propensity to the verbose. Not on the biggest day of his life. In March 1841 the ninth president, William Harrison, spoke so long (nearly two hours) in the bitter cold that he caught pneumonia and died a month later. The summons to arms of the 42nd President was among the shortest on record, 14 minutes.

Traditionally, an inaugural speech is picked apart for borrowings from its predecessors. The names Mr Clinton mentioned directly were those of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt; but the one that seeped unspoken from every line was that of John Kennedy.

On inauguration eve, Mr Clinton had visited the grave of the murdered president who in 1961, from the same Capitol steps, called on his fellow citizens to 'Ask not what your country can do for you - but what you can do for your country'. Thinly paraphrased, that was the leitmotif of yesterday, echoed in Mr Clinton's urgings to 'responsibility' and community service. Three times, instead of just once as provided by the advance text, he repeated Kennedy's summons to 'My fellow Americans.'

Never was the obvious more true. Just as 32 years ago, this transfer of power has been less from Republicans to Democrats than from one generation to another. In almost the very words of JFK, Mr Clinton appealed to the idealism of a 'new generation of young Americans' to what he called 'a season of service'.

After the drift, the 'failure to face hard truths' of the Bush years, the closing parenthesis of an era, he was unabashedly modern, dwelling as Mr Bush never would have done on the impact of instant global communications and the realities of a world where what might seem foreign and remote was in fact universal. Problems such as the environment, arms proliferation and Aids, Bill Clinton insisted, affect the US as they do everyone else. Plainly, this is a man who looks at the world through new eyes.

Predictably, precise clues to what he will do were few. Inaugural speeches are made for soaring generalities. In some ways, this one was a finely-honed version of Mr Clinton's declaration of his candidacy in Little Rock, back on a little-remembered October day in 1991, and his campaign message thereafter. But there were important additions.

With rare bluntness, the new President warned that renewal would entail sacrifice. And in American political parlance, 'sacrifice' means higher taxes. As clearly as the moment allowed, he was signalling that his economic plans, which will make or break his administration, would centre on cutting the deficit and increasing taxes on higher incomes, perhaps on petrol and other items too, rather than putting money into people's pockets. No less unexpected, after the lawyers-and- lobbyists odour of the transition, was his promise to change how Washington goes about its business.

He must now transform his unusually few, uncommonly well chosen words into deeds. Though he devoted scarcely a tenth of his speech to foreign affairs, they will crowd him from every side, challenging his commitment to tackling domestic problems. But as the helicopter bearing George Bush on his way back to Texas disappeared over the horizon, Bill Clinton seemed to have made an auspicious beginning.

(Photographs omitted)

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