Even in the most humdrum of years, an inauguration is the crowning moment of the United States constitution. Intoxicated rhetoric fills the air: 'An Avalanche of Faith, Hope and Sincerity' gushed a headline in the Washington Post yesterday - though you might not have guessed it from the recent stream of barbed editorials warning of pitfalls, perils and Clintonian procrastination. For a moment, the complaints are set aside in a uniquely American brew of pious idealising and the tackiest, most ruthless commercialism imaginable.
This inauguration, as every one before it, will see the President as Head of State. The republic lives its equivalent of a coronation, when Bill is King and Hillary his Queen. The new First Lady's ballgown and hairdo are the talking points of the hour, not the ferocious intellect she will bring to her husband's decision-making. At the moment of crowning, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, the three limbs of the US constitution, will for an instant merge. On the steps of the Capitol the man who is fleetingly described as William Jefferson Clinton will take the oath of office from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Marilyn Horne turns The Star-Spangled Banner into an operatic aria.
In English parlance this is monarchy, what Walter Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution. The epithet might seem ill-suited to the giant bazaar that Washington has become. The record dollars 30m ( pounds 19.3m) bill for the festivities will largely be picked up by 100-odd corporations and wealthy individuals: so much for the new administration's pledge to break free from powerful special-interest groups. From Clinton saxophone lapel pins for dollars 25 apiece to the Russian sable offered by a Maryland store for dollars 24,740 ('This Fur Sale Demonstrates the Value of Leadership,') everything can be bought - except tickets for the 11 inaugural balls tonight, which neither love, money nor even connections can any longer obtain.
But, however briefly, goodwill does generally reign. George Bush will become a private citizen, enjoying his highest public approval rating for more than 12 months. The country really does unite around its new leader, for what Mr Clinton this week called 'our great national celebration' for 'a willing and peaceful transfer of power from one president to another'. This time, the hyperbole may be forgiven.
Not since Mr Clinton's boyhood idol John Kennedy took power 32 years ago has there been such a changing of the generational guard. In a peculiarly American feat that almost anywhere else only a military coup could achieve, a man all but unknown a year ago has been elected leader of his country. The arrival of any Democratic president is occasion for pent-up rejoicing and expectation in this most Democratic of cities, not least among those who have waited more than a decade for government jobs. But the contrasts between the old and the new have never been greater. At 64, Mr Bush was one of the oldest men to enter the White House, the last to have served in the Second World War, and whose political life was moulded by the Cold War. Mr Clinton, at 46, is the third youngest.
His generation is baby-boom; his war (in which he notoriously did not serve) was Vietnam. His went to university in 1968, the most turbulent date in modern American history, of protest and violence, when Vietnam forced Lyndon Johnson from office, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and race riots swept the country.
For all the efforts of Mr Clinton's image-makers, it takes a huge leap of fancy to believe that Arkansas, McDonald's and a famous imitation of Elvis Presley are the ingredients of a new Camelot. But whatever emerges will surely be unrecognisable from the style of Mr Bush, the East Coast patrician who until it was too late treated supreme power as his natural birthright, a transitional figure whose job was to manage the end of the Cold War. Mr Clinton's challenges are utterly different.
Sweeping statements are the stuff of inaugurations. As one writer flatly put it, this is the moment 'when the Woodstock generation meets the infrastructure'. In other words, those first stirrings of the late 1960s against the industrial society have found their full expression in today's concerns about pollution and the environment - symbolised by the title of the bestseller Earth in the Balance, by Mr Clinton's fellow baby-boomer and Vice-President, Al Gore. But even Woodstock can understate the width of the generational gulf. George Stephanopoulos, for example, who as communications director will be one of the most powerful men in the White House, is a mere 31, too young even to have been a rock'n'roller. So is the new press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, the second-ranking public face of Clintonism.
Whatever else, the public is awaiting great things. There may be doubts about the precise nature of the new President - Southern populist, Oxford and Yale meritocrat or gladhander extraordinary? Certainly there are doubts about how he will handle the job. But hope is the order of the hour. A Washington Post poll found only 12 per cent 'scared' about what might happen in the next four years. More than half were either optimistic or excited. Two-thirds expect Mr Clinton will try to keep his campaign promises. A majority too expects 'substantial progress' on issues as diverse as Russia, homelessness and health care.
Such expectations are daunting. Thus far, Bill Clinton is coping with the pressure - even though he is unlikely to match the aplomb of Ronald Reagan 12 years ago. Three hours beforehand no one could find him. In mounting panic his closest aide, Michael Deaver, ventured into the great man's bedroom. The blinds were drawn and Mr Reagan was still half asleep. 'It's 9 o'clock,' Mr Deaver said. 'You're going to be sworn in as the 40th president this morning.' Mr Reagan roused himself, ran a hand through his hair: 'Do I have to?'
Architecture, page 14
Jogger without a road map, page 19