INAUGURALS don't set policy or make laws. But they are a special rite where, for a brief period, binding symbols and verities can be invoked that might otherwise seem hokey.
In this, President Clinton's inaugural oath and speech, the most solemn event of the day, was fresh and even masterly. Given the five-day gala in Washington and mounting expectations for Mr. Clinton's term, it was also appropriately modest and short.
Most striking was the event's invoking of old and new symbols. The first hymn sung prior to Mr. Clinton's oath was "City on a Hill" - the classic Puritan symbol of America as a shining example, a colony with a mission.
The final event was a reading by Maya Angelou, the black poet born 25 miles from Clinton's birthplace, of a poem calling for Americans to wake up to the magnitude and diversity of creation, of the natural world, and of the many peoples in our midst: "the African, the native American, the Sioux/ The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek."
In a haunting refrain - "the Rock cries out" - Ms. Angelou spoke of a collective yearning by Americans for a state of grace "Before cynicism was a bloody smear across your Brow."
In between, Clinton's speech itself (reprinted on Page 19) was an attempt to invoke, in common language, what scholars call civil religion: that is, a recognition that while the business of America cannot be described in denominational terms, that business still must contain a dimension of transcendence and hope beyond the merely political and secular. The life of the state must exist in some relation to the sacred.
In a speech of nearly 1,600 words, Clinton referred some 70 times to civil religion, starting with the very first line: "We celebrate the mystery of American renewal." Rebirth, the debt owed to our forebears, the demands of conscience, Biblical echoes - all were present. While not a great Lincolnesque moral formulation, neither was this a speech by an economic policy wonk. It was an appeal to the spirit: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." Nor was thi s mere optimism. Clinton spoke of dangers, facing "hard truths" that haven't been faced, and sacrifice.
The central message was Clinton's new formulation: that Americans can't have the opportunities liberals have fought for without accepting the responsibilities that conservatives seek.
Now gridlock and a deep well of cynicism about whether government can address the large-scale problems of America and the world must be faced. The task is to keep the grace, which many found evident in this inaugural, under the pressures at hand.