[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 22 January, 2005, 15:54 GMT
Celebrating freedom amid tight security

By Justin Webb
BBC Washington correspondent

US presidential inaugurations can be fatal. But it's not the assassin's bullet which creates the danger, it's the cold. In 1841, William Henry Harrison defied a driving ice storm, and for 90 minutes on his podium delivered the longest inauguration speech in history - and promptly caught pneumonia and died.

George W Bush's speech on Thursday was shorter, and the president has survived in rude health.

What a day. It began early in the slush with a run on earmuffs.

One of the disadvantages of the cowboy hat in sub-zero temperatures is that it leaves your ears dangerously exposed. This is not a problem in Texas,†but in winter Washington it most certainly is.††

George W Bush is sworn in for a second term as US president
The inauguration passed off without security scares
So the town was full of Texans who had come to show their solidarity with their adopted son, but were now†in urgent need of protection, and not all were satisfied by the time they had to join the queues to get close to the action.

This is where the second difficulty arose. Texans are used to marshalling cattle, not being marshalled like cattle. They don't have many security checks in the lone-star state, so its population is a little naive when the time comes to be x-rayed and frisked.†

From inside pockets came streams of oversized Texan trinkets, all of them metallic, many - Colt 45 cigarette lighters for instance - not wholly welcome in the modern security environment.

The biggest problem, though, was food.†Texans need snacks. They are often very large and very hungry. But all fruit is forbidden at inaugurals - too tempting to throw it at the president and go down in history for the price of a rotten tomato.

So fruit confiscation on a grand scale was added to the list of concerns of the security teams, and it got slower and slower, and we all got colder and colder.††

There was then a brief period when the going was good.†Our media position was really spectacular - perched to the left of the podium, probably no more than 50ft (15 metres) from where the president would stand.

Before taking our places we were able - this is still a relaxed country, pace the fruit - to wander around the podium area, tread on the carpet and survey the scene from the presidential vantage point, as workmen chipped ice off the seats. It was the equivalent of sitting on the woolsack in the House of Lords just before the Queen opens parliament.†

In the end, we were shepherded away to our enclosure, but we were still close enough to see expressions and movements as the dignitaries took their seats.

The overwhelming impression - this president fidgets. His eyes dart around, his hands find repose only for a few seconds at a time. Is it my imagination, or did he at one point†flick a thumbs-up sign at the elderly and very dignified† Chief Justice William Rehnquist?

Central conundrum

Anyway, it was all over very quickly and everyone dashed off - most of us secretly†relieved, I suspect, that the event had passed off without security scares.

For that was the central conundrum of this day, a day when nationhood and political freedom is celebrated - indeed trumpeted - by the president, and yet in so many small ways, individual freedoms seem to be eroded by the heavy (albeit necessary) hand of security.† ††

The president was not free, for instance, to walk the route home from Capitol Hill to the White House, as Jimmy Carter did not that many years ago.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney dances with his wife Lynne at an inaugural ball
Members of the administration appeared to enjoy themselves
The general public, meanwhile, is increasingly denied the freedom to see this event, except on television. Now you can't get close without a ticket, and the good seats along Pennsylvania Avenue were $125 (96 euros; £67)each.

And of course, all of us there were photographed and monitored. I had to have entire handprints taken weeks ago and checked against various criminal databases†in order to get my vantage point.††

Is this just a nuisance, or is it more? Is America's†freedom being undermined even as the president proclaims it from the steps of the Capitol?†

Perhaps future inaugurations will take place in secure locations with a fake backdrop and a few TV cameras.††

On Thursday, I noticed that even the Texas University cheerleaders cannot be trusted - the president watched them and the rest of the cheery, chaotic post-inaugural parade completely enclosed in bomb-proof glass.†

Having said that, he did look as if he was having fun. Say what you like about Mr Bush, but he doesn't always take himself too seriously.†

Although he must be busy with his mission to end tyranny around the globe, he†and Dick Cheney and the rest of them giggled and clapped and did their shoes up and took photos of each other with a gaily coloured disposable camera as if they didn't have a care in the world.

In times of great stress and strain, they can let their hair down in public.

Now that is freedom.†

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 January, 2005 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific