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The US in transition: Mother of all parties begins: Inauguration Diary

WHAT IS it about the US political system that gives so many excuses to frolic - to party in the name of the party? It was party-time at the conventions last summer, party-time in Little Rock on election night, and now the biggest party of all. One theory is that without the over-the-top inaugural festivities the public would not be mentally prepared for what remains a little unbelievable. Yup, that man with the goofy smile and chewed lower lip really is about to become President of the United States of America. Real soon.

TRAFFIC jams in town took on a special nature yesterday, with a few cars creating mile-long back-ups. If you're not riding in a stretch limo, you're nobody. This inaugural is meant to be 'inclusive' though, not just for the elite. Guests at a dress rehearsal last night of tonight's presidential gala concert, with Barbra Streisand and Fleetwood Mac, were instructed to bring a can of food for the homeless. Bill and Hillary, meanwhile, lunched yesterday with 50 'Faces of Hope', a selection of 'unfamous' people encountered on the election trail.

But the famous are here in force. All around town dinners and receptions are being held with stars such as Robin Williams, Bette Midler and kd lang. Not a few of them turned up for Sunday night's dazzling bash on Washington Mall to welcome Bill and Hillary and Al and Tipper into town. The third-of-a-million odd crowded in front of the Lincoln Memorial watched performers such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and even (in case we forget this is the Sixties crowd moving into town) Bob Dylan. Mr Clinton was most excited by a rendition of Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' - played by a small orchestra of saxophones.

Dylan was premier invitee at the first of many fringe inaugural balls - Sunday night's Absolutely Unofficial Blue Jeans Bash, at dollars 50 (pounds 33) per ticket (ie very cheap) where denim was de rigeur, especially those jeans with delicate rips in the knee or thigh vicinity. Is such attire worthy of events as historic as these? Sure, replied a guest. 'You can wear them anywhere, darlin', except

to church and your grandma's funeral.'

THESE are busy times for Washington journalists, what with Saddam Hussein butting in on the fun. But brows are especially furrowed among future Clinton White House correspondents who yesterday were on notice to assemble outside Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Bill is lodging, at 5.30am for his pre- dawn jog. Mr Bush was famous for his early starts, often for a little pre-breakfast golf. Mr Clinton seems determined to rival him.

MORNING exercise apart, what will be President Clinton's first priority at the White House? Rescuing the economy? Ousting President Saddam? Apparently not. 'I want to see a lot of movies,' he told NBC's Tom Brokaw yesterday. 'There's a little movie theatre there. And we've had some friends offer to send us movies. (Pause.) I love to watch movies.' He is also keen to flatten the skittles in the executive bowling alley.

Hillary has come in for a bit of stick. An 80ft wall on the mall offering space for people to scribble their dreams for the next four years included offerings such as, 'Divorce Hillary' and 'Tell Hillary to get some REAL clothes and a REAL haircut'.