Washington's big day approaches

By tradition, the presidential oath of office will be administered outside, in full view of the electorate, with the incoming President and Vice-President surrounded by members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and diplomatic corps. As George W Bush slips out of the door and disappears back to his Texas ranch, the inauguration of the 44th president will be a much-anticipated event.

But even on less-august occasions, it is to the Mall that people are always drawn, to protest some injustice, grieve for those sacrificed to America's ham-fisted foreign policies, or simply to crowd its extraordinary array of free museums.

Inspired by Versailles, the army officer Pierre Charles L'Enfant who laid out Washington in 1791 envisioned the Mall as a grand avenue with stately gardens. That's not how things turned out. Instead, it has been torn up, altered for security reasons and eaten into as groups lobby for war memorials. What next? A monument to George Bush's folly in Iraq? His version of Saddam Hussein's colossal Hands of Victory monument? George Bush may be commander-in-chief until noon on 20 January 2009, but when it comes to altering the Mall, thankfully he has no power.