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Page last updated at 05:41 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Washington diary: Inaugural fever

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Apologies first of all for my prolonged absence.

Workers on the steps of the US Capitol building in Washington DC ahead of the presidential inauguration
Washington DC is abuzz with preparations for the inauguration

I offer no excuse other than seasonal sloth and general exhaustion but the hammering of the wooden platform in front of the White House for the Big Day has wrenched me from my slumber and forced me to reboot my computer.

Washington is of course scrubbing up for perhaps the most anticipated inauguration in history.

Next week's party has focused the minds and energies of this city like a village wedding in a time of pestilence.

Rehearsals are being held, flags measured and brass instruments polished in defiance of the plunging Dow and the abysmal job numbers.

The capital is slowly beginning to fill up.

Booked solid

Washington DC, a city of just over one million inhabitants, may play host to a visiting crowd of three million.

Trains have been booked solid for months.

You cannot find a hotel room as far away as Baltimore or Richmond, and enterprising citizens of the District are pitching tents and renting their homes for astronomical sums.

For one week the recession - or is it now a depression? - will be banished from this town like an evil spirit.

Bars will stay open until 4am on the day after inauguration night.

Barack Obama has risen to the mounting challenge of crisis and expectation by flexing his muscles

Hollywood stars who normally shun the federal capital like a leper colony will descend en masse.

Reagan airport will become a parking lot for executive jets. And at one night club they have taken the Obama worship to new levels by offering the "Dream" cocktail, a sickly concoction of rum, caramel and cinnamon.

The economy continues to tank, Gaza continues to burn and Eastern Europe continues to shiver without Russian gas but the world, it seems, does not begrudge Washington its festivities, just as the world wishes George Bush a speedy transition to retirement amid the tumbleweed of Texas.

Desperate times call for an extreme make-over and the new president will have to walk a tightrope of managed anticipation and tempered optimism, without plunging into the abyss of despair.

I would not call the Obama cocktail "The Dream" - how about "The Wake-Up Call"?: two shots of vodka to numb the pain, a generous squeeze of lime and lemon to give a kick, and a dash of carrot juice to line the stomach.

Renewal of vows

I wonder what it must feel like to be Barack Obama as the clock ticks down to his first day on the new job.

Today he can still issue uber-sized stimulus packages without having to take responsibility for them.

He has picked his team. He has consulted the history books and no doubt drafted and redrafted the most important speech of his life, all the while staring up at the Mount Rushmore of expectations looming over him.

If this is daunting, he has - in part - only himself to blame.

Barack Obama has risen to the mounting challenge of crisis and expectation by flexing his muscles.

A US Secret Service agent stands in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC
The spirit of Abraham Lincoln will be everywhere

He is David on stilts armed with a bazooka, kicking sand into Goliath's face.

As David Brooks put it in the New York Times this week: "We will know by the end of the year whether he is a great President or the opposite."

Mr Obama would probably respond that he is not a gambler by choice, but that the dice have been thrust into his hand by destiny. This is not a time for timid men.

Every inauguration is a renewal of the vows between American democracy and its chief custodian.

It is the bespoke coronation of a newly-elected (temporary) monarch; a rebooting of the American dream.

Recurring nightmare

Every successor to George Washington must feel a hint of this.

Even poor old President Harrison who spoke for two hours without a hat in freezing temperatures on his big day in 1841, contracted pneumonia and died a month later.

Even Lyndon Johnson, who was promoted from Vice President to President by an assassin's bullet and took a hurried oath on Air Force One while waiting to depart from Love Field in Dallas.

The newly widowed Jackie Kennedy stood by his side. The body of the man he replaced travelled in a box in the hold below.

Every presidential swearing-in, however bizarre or tragic, hums with history.

Every living President follows in the footsteps of his predecessors cast in marble, iron or bronze all around him on Washington's imperial axis, the ceremonial Mall.

I would not be surprised if one of the hazards of the job was a recurring nightmare about FDR coming to life and wheeling over to the new occupant to offer advice, Jefferson striding over from his domed memorial to exude disdain and pity, Ulysses Grant stepping off his horse to berate or Ronald Reagan bestowing a smile and a wink.

All the accumulated poignancy of inauguration day will only be the beginning of what promises to be one of the most challenging presidencies of all time

Barack Obama will no doubt be dreaming about all of them but he has cloaked his inauguration in the man who bookends the ceremony in so many ways.

The senator from Illinois, who kicked off his candidacy in the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln's voice once echoed, will swear his oath on Lincoln's Bible.

He will do so in front of the Washington Capitol's dome, Mr Lincoln's grandiose project designed to celebrate the rebirth of a union torn apart by Civil War.

And he will look straight into the hooded eyes of the lugubrious 16th President sitting in his giant temple at the other end of the Mall.

Mr Lincoln will be everywhere, closely followed by the spirit of Martin Luther King who used the steps in front of the memorial to declare that he had a dream.

With Barack Obama's inauguration that dream has been fulfilled in ways that even Dr King might not have dared to imagine.

But all the accumulated poignancy of inauguration day will only be the beginning of what promises to be one of the most challenging presidencies of all time.

Barack Obama clocks into his new job at a time of war, economic crisis and global flux.

Well-worn certainties have been replaced by searing doubts.

We know from last week's presidential lunch at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that all the living holders of the office already wish him well.

Now he also needs every dead President on his side.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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