Quarter to seven in the evening here, and the parade has just wound up. It was the usual thing, the American parade everyone knows from endless summer teen movies — marching bands, waving sousaphones, the Liberty Bell march, the baton-twirling, the waves, the smiles. The Punahou Hawaii girls’ band followed by a bunch of fifers in revolutionary-era gear, then the somewhere Lesbian and Gay marching band — “they’re all openly lesbian and gay” said the commentator somewhat redundantly, given the rainbow banner and the fact that their baton marshall was camping it up like Armistead Maupin on a bad E — on and on they all kept coming, with President Obama — President Obama! — forced to adopt the fixed smile and the nod at each fresh burst of ludicrous uniforms and 2/4 beat.

It’s cold with a chill wind that came up soon after Obama finished speaking — another sign of divine intent? — and most of the million? million half? two million? people there, had to try and get out, and get somewhere, a process which involved walking in circles for two hours encountering dead-ends that other people were already coming back from.

It was chaos, but there was really no way it was ever going to not be. The sheer press of people into the city was more than any contingency plan could handle. At one point, trapped between the sheer stone walls of the Smithsonian and the crowd flowing endlessly inwards from the Mall, I became vaguely worried, thinking that this is the way crowd disasters happen, arising from nothing, and suddenly it’s uncontrollable…

Released from that finally, we climbed over the garden of the department of agriculture building, and someone cut a hole in a plastic cyclone fence to get on to the (empty) expressway. It was a sort of mass parcour, the deconstruction of the city, a carnivale in the wake of the great upset.

Now in the lobbies of the hotels, everyone’s getting ready for the parties, the balls. The toilets of Starbucks are full of girls rushing in and out each half into a taffeta number, looking for pins. Some groups have hired their own tailors for the night, small women of a certain age dashing between floors with tuxedos looped over their arms. To the victor the spoils, and the parties are overwhelmingly of a certain attitude — the celebration of people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as belonging in a tux. More than the Clinton era, more than Carter, there is a sense not just of a changing of the guard, but of a whole style of regime.

Those who turned out to the Mall and spread beyond it appear to have numbered between 1.7 to 1.8 million — shoulder to shoulder spread across the centre of the city, the crowd itself the size of a small city. They heard, in President Obama’s inauguration speech, something that few had expected — neither the high and lofty oracular style of the primaries, nor a generic and anodyne bromide designed to offend no-one.

Instead it was a politically aggressive speech, slating the previous regime in no uncertain terms, for the pursuit of “petty grievances”, noting that we would “do business in the light of day” rather than in the shadows, looking forward to the challenges created by the “f-ck-ups of this doofus behind me” (I made that one up) etc etc.

In effect, Obama joined together the renewal of America’s relationship abroad, with the reconstruction of its character at home, the renewal of its promise, and its ideals. Oratory-wise it wasn’t a great speech — but there seems to be a sense in which he’s steering away from great speeches, determined to make Americans face the more prosaic truth about their circumstances and the need for fundamental change — change in the service of a continuity of their culture and values.

For those who thought that Obama’s cautious and centrist Cabinet appointments signalled an intent to lead a timid and time-serving administration, it’s a shot in the arm. The new President couldn’t have been clearer about repudiating the moral legitimacy of his predecessor and that is a pretty unusual thing to do in an inauguration speech. It suggests that the next few weeks, months, years may be a wilder ride than many were expecting. However quickly one will have to start opposing it — and that may be quite soon — I, for one, can’t wait for the damn thing to begin.

Rockets red glare and all that. Out the window, young women hitching up their dresses to cross the wet, jet-black streets. Sirens and the red blue copcar lights reflecting in the puddles. And Dubya gone this afternoon, in a helicopter, to Dallas, to the strains of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin. Indeed indeed indeed. And tomorrow seems as bright as a new-minted penny, Lincoln’s profile shining in the winter sun.

Peter Fray

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