Washington, 21 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - As Bill Clinton took the oath of office as president of the United States Monday, most Americans went about their business with only passing attention to the celebrations in Washington.
Those Americans who did have the day off -- and they formed a majority of the U.S. workforce -- did so not because of the inauguration but in commemoration of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
And those American politicians who had actively opposed the re-election of President Clinton -- including his opponent in last November's elections, former senator Bob Dole -- listened quietly and respectfully to the inaugural address and pledged to work together with the president during his second term.
What is remarkable about these three facts is just how unremarkable they are in the American context and how striking they would be virtually anywhere else.
So deeply institutionalized and widely accepted is the peaceful ratification of the results of elections that most Americans seldom give it a second thought. Every four years, the American people go to the polls and elect a president; a few months later, the winner takes office; and that is that.
Some commentators regularly bemoan the fact that Americans do not seem to care more about the process, but these critics miss the point. As citizens of almost all other countries would admit, it is precisely the American view of this process as part of the natural order of things that is both an indication of the success of the American experiment and a guarantee of its future.
But the uniqueness of the American experience -- more than 200 years of the peaceful, orderly and democratic transfer of power -- is rooted in more than inertia. It rests in a view that politics, however important on occasion, seldom forms more than a small part of life in the United States.
For most Americans, no one election, however much it agitates the candidates and their partisans, affects them in such a profound way that they must focus on politics to the exclusion of everything else. And from the point of view of most Americans, the biggest questions in American life are either already decided or are being decided outside of the political arena.
Consequently, it is especially significant and fitting that Americans who have the day off today do so to commemorate the life and work of a man who never held elective office but helped to transform America and hence American politics far more than many who did and do.
As the leader of the civil rights revolution until his assassination nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King appealed to the best instincts of Americans to help overcome one of the most tragic pages of American life, the often difficult relations between the races.
But the very ordinariness of January 20 in the United States this year was perhaps best indicated by the behavior of the politicians who fought last year's election. Not only did no one challenge this result of the November vote or suggest that the election had been stolen, but every one of them accepted the outcome and pledged to work with the winner.
Indeed, in an act that many hope will define his second term, President Clinton last week gave his defeated opponent, former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, the Medal of Freedom. That is the highest civilian award that the American government can bestow, and President Clinton's decision to present it to his rival is a measure of the unity in diversity of American politics.
And sitting behind President Clinton as he took the oath were other political figures who opposed him in the past and will oppose him in the future. But on January 20, they were all present to watch something extraordinary because of its ordinariness -- the peaceful ratification of the voice of the people in the oldest republic on earth.
The political calm on display in Washington on Monday, of course, does not presage the end of political conflicts there. But it does show why those conflicts are a testament to the strength and not the weakness of a political system that President Abraham Lincoln described more than a century ago as "the last best hope of mankind."