The mantle of US leadership cloaks new shoulders for the 40th time

The crowd stills, the nation watches, the black-robed chief justice steps forward, and the former California governor and one-time Hollywood actor says, "I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear . . . [to] preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

In Philadelphia two centuries ago John Adams wrote to his beloved Abigail that it was "the sublimest thing ever exhibited in America." The Founding Fathers wrote the words, George Washington recited them first. Mr. Reagan is the 40th president to do so.

America and the rest of the world look on the new President with awe and hope: One moment ago he was a private citizen, the next moment he is one of the most powerful men on Earth. No American soldier is fighting in a foreign war, no campus is in turmoil, and no cities are on fire.

It goes beyond this.Before the ceremony, the victorious candidate and President Carter, his defeated rival, rode in harmony together up Pennsylvania Avenue with a symbolism that even the most obtuse could grasp.

The mood of the crowd is festive and generous.Some call it the beginning of a new political era. Others doubt that, but in any case it is not a moment of anger and resentment; war protesters do not chant in the crowd as they did for Richard Nixon in 1973; no great shadow rests on the nation as for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 or for Abraham Lincoln in 1861, when he finally appealed -- in vain -- to "the better angels of our nature."

The Reagan inaugural abounds in "firsts": It is the first to use the West Front of the Capitol; it is the first where grandstand seats cost $100; and it will always be known as the "hostage inaugural."

The burst of emotion over the last-minute liberation of the imprisoned diplomats from Iran will thrill but perhaps also baffle succeeding generations. In a nation that accepts 21,500 murders a year, that sees 51,900 auto accident fatalities as unfortunate but acceptable, the excitement over 52 hostages seems disproportionate numerically. But intangibles are involved here as in the inaugural itself -- deep-rooted symbols of national honor that transcend normal standards.

Every inaugural has its own tradition. James A. Garfield in 1881 couldn't think what to tell the nation; he recorded in his diary, "I wrote the last sentence at half-past two o'clock a.m. March 4."

In 1933 a copy of Thoreau was in the Mayflower Hotel room of President-elect Franklin Roosevelt, including the words "nothing is so much to be feared as fear."

Most inaugurals fall into a kind of pattern -- one thing celebrated is economy. Pierce promised "an observance of rigid economy;" Garfield used the same words; Cleveland said the duty of government is "to relieve the public of unnecessary taxation." The trail is broken for Reagan. Some presidents didn't just promise tax reduction. Gen. Zachary Taylor, a simple, honest soldier, favored "speedy extinguishment of the national debt." they haven't done that yet.

The public debt yesterday was $930,070,447,903.

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