THIS town usually throttles back during the weeks between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the New Year. Congress is out of session, the president's schedule slows, and many United States government offices and foreign embassies all but empty out for extended holidays.
But the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993 has seemed especially quiet when compared with the same time last year, which was a frenzied build-up to the national election campaign season. Washington these days also appears dormant compared to late 1990 and early 1991, when the city was buzzing with White House, Pentagon and State Department preparations for the United States' involvement in the Gulf war.
While bright Christmas lights still adorn buildings and monuments downtown, they will soon give way to patriotic banners of red, white, and blue. President-elect Clinton is coming to town.
There is plenty of activity, both easy to see and behind-the-scenes. All along the inaugural route, thousands of viewing stands are under construction for the Jan. 20 celebration. The local fashion boutiques and fine department stores are doing a brisk business in women's wear for the upcoming inaugural balls.
Caterers, hoteliers, and restauranteurs are getting ready for lavish affairs and down-home, blue-jeans bashes. And shoppers are lined up outside the new inaugural souvenir store, where merchandise sales will help defray costs for some planned festivities. Managers say they can't keep enough Clinton-Gore memorabilia in stock.
Lobbyists are busy repositioning themselves to work their way into the new administration's fold. Before the November election, most firms were careful to spread their good will among Republicans and Democrats alike. Those with high-profile GOP connections made sure to spread around their donations to Mr. Clinton's campaign.
That even goes for Black, Manafort, and Stone - a law/lobbying firm where Charles Black, President Bush's 1992 campaign adviser and now a competitor for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, hangs his hat.
Representatives from US and foreign industry, as well as political and economic officers from assorted embassies, are canvassing influence peddlers and even journalists to gauge how the Clinton administration will affect their interests.
Official organizers for the shift from President Bush's tenure, finishing 12 years of Republican rule, to the new Democratic administration are moving fast. Holed up in offices seven days a week are the members of Clinton's economic policy and national security cluster groups, who are readying lists of sub-cabinet appointees and a broad range of recommended steps for Clinton's first 100 days as chief executive.
But those who now glide through the city's relatively quiet streets are preparing for a downtown crowded with gridlock traffic and hoards of well-wishers soon to descend upon Washington. By some Arkansans' estimates, some 6,000 proud Clinton devotees will arrive from the Razorback state alone.
Bouncing back after a crushing electoral defeat, Bush has taken his business abroad with an agenda that defies the usual assumptions about a "lame duck" presidency. Along with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the crowning achievement of his past four years of trade policy.
Together with British Prime Minister John Major and European Community President Jacques Delors, Bush made a final push for resolution of a global trade pact by Jan. 15. And he sent US troops into Somalia to help stabilize the African country and provide humanitarian relief to starving people.
On Bush's watch, a US pilot countered Saddam Hussein's recent test of US resolve when he shot down an Iraqi jet flying over the no-fly zone. Bush also summited with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and signed START II, an accord designed to slash US and Russian nuclear arsenals.
These many initiatives are far from completion, but US policy concerning the former Yugoslavia is the least developed.
Bush's push for a no-fly zone over Bosnia and warnings to Serbia about designs on Kosovo have been thwarted. The Balkans pose the most immediate foreign policy challenge for Clinton, who will try to operate in full gear as soon he is sworn into office.