EVERY four years the drab American government goes in unexpectedly for pomp and circumstance. Odd things happen. George Washington, a fine figure of a man, danced two cotillions and a minuet at his inaugural ball in 1789. Two centuries later the newly installed Jimmy Carter, after he repeated the 38-word oath, got out of his car and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, with a meaning that Americans could understand if Europeans couldn't. America is an old softie at heart, though other nations find it hard to understand. The inaugural is really a kind of religious ceremony that establishes identity between people and their leader after the excesses of the long and often silly election campaign.
It was not always thus. John Adams left the little capital at 4 a.m. to escape his successful rival. But mostly it is a time of recognition, congratulation, and reconciliation. In great moments it may rise to noble heights, as when Lincoln vainly appealed in his first inaugural for better feelings on ``the mystic chords of memory'' touched by ``the better angels of our nature.'' In his second inaugural he made the ultimate statement, concluding ``with malice toward none; with charity for all.''
The city now is swathed in bunting and bathed in sentiment. I recognize the mood, but how different is Washington! It is bigger and more sophisticated. When I came here the nation was irreversibly isolationist -- we were protected by the Atlantic and Pacific, weren't we? At home America didn't need social legislation -- we were rich and self-sustaining. The new Model T was creating a revolution, but busy streetcars still supplied rush-hour transportation for government clerks. The streetcars weren't trolleys -- the power came up to them from underground slits in the pavement. Now, of course, it is subways and buses.
It was a half-segregated city in Harding's day. Across the Potomac, over in Virginia, the blacks still sat at the rear of the cars, they weren't served in downtown restaurants, and the main theater in town closed for a couple of years rather than sell blacks orchestra seats.
That was 12 Presidents ago. There have been touches of humor in America's constant change. They are spelled out by phrases in inaugural addresses; I have just been reading them, studying up the inaugural as an art form.
Take the business of the federal budget. President James Buchanan first raised the matter, so far as I can see, on March 4, 1857. His problem was not a budget deficit but a surplus. He thought he could wrestle with the difficulty.
A Treasury surplus, he said, was a temptation to extravagance. The surplus sprang from the tariffs we had imposed on imported goods. Certainly the national debt should be paid as soon as possible; but what happened then? President Buchanan in his inaugural puts a good face on it, but you can see it bothers him: ``This [the surplus] almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant legislation.'' He adds:
``Our present financial situation is without a parallel in history. No nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its treasury.''
I remember the inaugural of 1973 particularly, because I found myself up in a radio box under the ceiling of the portico of the Capitol where I was supposed to feed bright lines and observations to the commentator. We were at war, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had just completed the 12-days-of-Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and as we talked we could hear the faint, rhythmic antiwar chants on the fringes of the crowd. There was a sour note in the affair; in his address Mr. Nixon charged that ``our children have been taught to be ashamed of our country, ashamed of their parents, ashamed of America's record at home and its role in the world.''
Good nature in an inaugural cannot keep reality out. Fortunately here in 1985 there is a surge of hope in the world that the superpowers are trying to reach agreement. History moves along briskly and sometimes seems as unaccommodating as the weather (half my inaugurals have been bleak).
And so the bunting blows, floats trundle past, bands toot, drum majorettes strut (often clad mostly in goose flesh), and vendors sell cardboard periscopes to see over people's heads. Another inaugural . . . and one with no danger of a Treasury surplus.