William Jefferson Clinton took the oath of office Monday in the last presidential inauguration of the 20th century, urging Americans to bury old racial and political divisions and declaring that the nation stands “on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs.”
Standing under cool but sunny skies at the Capitol, the nation’s 42nd president delivered an inaugural address brimming with hopeful visions of a “new century in a new millennium” - a time of safe streets, medical marvels and unrivaled prosperity swept in by the Information Age - and challenged his audience to turn “the hope of this day into the noblest chapter in our history.”
The theme of reconciliation was woven throughout the 22-minute speech, and the crowd of more than 200,000 gave its strongest applause to Clinton’s call for bipartisanship.
“The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another,” said Clinton, the first Democratic president re-elected in 52 years. “Surely, they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call all us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America’s mission. America demands and deserves big things from us, and nothing big ever came from being small.”
While Clinton has not always embraced bipartisanship - lashing Republicans as extreme and lacking in compassion was central to his re-election - the importance of racial healing is his oldest and most steady commitment. The 50-year-old president, who grew up amidst segregation in Arkansas, evoked the ideal of racial harmony Monday not just in his rhetoric, but in a wealth of symbols.
Hours earlier, Clinton began his day at a prayer service at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church where the Rev. Jesse Jackson invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day that also honored the slain civil rights leader. Jackson recalled that King demanded attention “to those in the margins.”
“You were elected by the poor and the humble people,” he told the Clintons and Gores who sat in the front pew. “They elected you. You won Appalachia. You won Harlem. You won the barrios. You won the farm workers.”
Clinton, noting the holiday, recalled the famous 1963 “I-have-a-dream” speech at the other end of the Mall. Despite progress, Clinton said, racial and ethnic divisions “plague us still.”
“These obsessions cripple both those who hate and, of course, those who are hated, robbing both of what they might become,” Clinton said. “We cannot, we will not succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them.”
Clinton, flanked by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea, forsook overcoat, hat and gloves as he was sworn in for a second term by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at 12:05 p.m., five minutes behind the time set in the Constitution. “Good luck,” Rehnquist told him afterward.
The president used the same family Bible he did four years ago and had it turned open to Isaiah, 58:12, a passage suggested by the Rev. Robert Schuler, who was at the White House Saturday: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.”
Moments before, Vice President Al Gore was sworn in by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first female justice to administer the oath at an inauguration.
While several senators said he told them he was even more excited than in 1993, Clinton looked more serene than exhilarated, an older, thinner and more seasoned figure than the buoyant, youthful-looking Washington newcomer of four years ago.
His morning was punctuated by a series of last-minute changes of mind, over both his words and his wardrobe.
After staying up until 1 a.m. working on his speech, aides said, he called in some more revisions before heading off for an early church service. After returning to the White House for a brief coffee with congressional leaders, he slipped out to use a computer in the usher’s office to tinker with it one last time before departing for the Capitol. Likewise, he abruptly decided to change ties in the holding room, switching from a M.C. Escher print that he concluded was “a little busy,” according to an aide, to a more sedate polka-dotted tie.
The ceremony blended a mix of traditions, including an invocation by the Rev. Billy Graham (in what was his eighth inauguration), poetry by Miller Williams and a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” by opera diva Jessye Norman.
In keeping with tradition whenever the top echelon of the federal government gathers in a single spot, a lone Cabinet member was kept away in case of a cataclysm wiping out the nation’s leadership. Defense Secretary William J. Perry stayed at the Pentagon.
As part of his claim as a national unifier, Clinton took pains to reach out to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., his first-term rival who has been humbled by an ethics investigation and faces a House vote on punishment today.
During his limousine ride to the ceremony - which included the inaugural committee leaders, Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., and Sen. Wendell H. Ford, D-Ky. - Clinton told Gingrich, “There’s a moment (in life) to breach the differences,” according to White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who said Gingrich agreed.
Later, during a luncheon in Statuary Hall after the swearing in, when few people seemed to be going anywhere near Gingrich, the president leaned over after a toast to clink his glass with the embattled speaker in a friendly gesture that did not seem lost on either man.
Gingrich likewise put aside partisanship and called the day a “joyous occasion” as he presented a U.S. flag to Clinton and Gore that had flown over the Capitol earlier in the day. “We want each of you to, on occasion, look and remember that while we may disagree about some things, here you’re among friends,” Gingrich told them. “And as Americans, we cherish and wish you Godspeed in your administration.”
When he passed the marching band from Cody, Wyo., which had been told it could not come after months of preparation until Clinton intervened, the president said over the mike, “Hello, Cody, glad you’re here!”
The Clintons got out to walk the last half-block and spent the rest of the afternoon in a reviewing stand in front of the White House before embarking on a grueling evening of partying at a record 14 official inaugural balls.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THOUGHTS FOR A NEW CENTURY On prejudice “The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future. We cannot, we will not succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere.” On governing “We need a new government for a new century - humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves.” On the future “Our land of new promise will be a nation that meets its obligations. A nation that balances its budget and never loses the balance of its values.” - William Jefferson Clinton
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