WASHINGTON - Emerging in a gray mist, the lead actors in a gripping American drama took their places on the inaugural stage.
George W. Bush raised his right hand while facing a stone-faced Vice President Al Gore, the man he defeated after a brutal post-election dispute.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist delivered the oath of office just steps from President Bill Clinton, over whose impeachment trial the justice had presided in his familiar gold-barred robe.
Bush's father, the one-term president, watched with tears in his eyes as his son followed his path to power. The outgoing first lady, a freshly elected lawmaker herself, beamed at her new fellow senators. And Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom Bush defeated in a bitter GOP primary, watched intently with his head bare in the cold.
The Shakespearean denouement was not lost on its bit players. Moments before Bush took the oath, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, rose from his seat on the podium, trained his camera on the scene and snapped a picture.
When the vow was over, and Bush's words "so help me God" echoed through the crowd, jubilant supporters hooted from the National Mall, rain-drenched protesters shouted their disapproval and a brigade of twirlers, buglers, high-steppers - and even a sled-dog team - marked the moment with a noisy parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
"All we feel is excitement," said William Boyce, 34, an insurance agent from Amarillo, Texas, smoking a stogie in celebration.
"I was expecting protesters, but all I could hear was, `Bush! Bush! Bush!'" gushed Mary Behrens, a die-hard Bush fan from Casper, Wyo., bundled in a fleece jacket with a guns-and-holsters pattern on the pockets. "I'm cold. I'm wet. And I'm loving every minute of it."
It was a day when everyone, from the podium to the sidewalks, had to contend with the elements - from steady rain to blustery winds to raw cold. On Capitol Hill, the ground turned to mud as women threw plastic ponchos over furs and men slip-slided in wet cowboy boots toward private parties and parade-watching.
Few of the Bush backers were shedding any farewell tears for the seemingly forgotten Gore, the winner of the popular vote. By the ceremony's end, a large-screen television on the Mall cut to pictures of the Gores, swathed in black overcoats, walking alone down the front steps of the Capitol into a limousine. But by then, crowds were pushing toward the exits and nobody seemed to notice.
And there was little Republican nostalgia for the departing Clinton. While the outgoing president flashed a thumbs-up as he left the Capitol, the Bushes kept their personal send-off brief. Laura Bush bid the outgoing president a quick goodbye, her smile as bright as her turquoise coat.
Soon after, Marine One hovered over the Capitol grounds. Someone in the crowd (mistakenly) shouted, "It's Clinton leaving town!" - prompting dozens within earshot to look up and cheer. (Actually, he climbed into a waiting limousine.)
A cold and tired Jerry West stood dirt-splattered on the Mall with a battered sign that read "Hail to the Thief." The 36-year-old lawyer from Laurel said Bush supporters had made three attempts to destroy it. One woman, he said, stabbed the sign with her umbrella, and someone else tried to run off with it before West chased it down. "I'm not chicken, but I was afraid someone was going to push me off a ledge when I was holding the sign up there earlier," he said.
At that moment, a Bush supporter stormed over and tried to break up the conversation. "You've got three guys standing around in Stetsons over there with nothing but good things to say about George W. Bush," he boomed at reporters. "Why don't you interview them?"
In quieter ways, the divisions that led to this Inauguration Day remained evident on the Mall yesterday. Bush's twin daughters did not applaud as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore were introduced. And when the new vice president, Dick Cheney, was announced on the podium, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, both Democrats, did not applaud or even look up but just kept on chatting.
But along the parade route, beating the weather - not a political opponent - remained the primary obsession. TV actor Rick Schroder looked incredulous when someone asked him whether he wanted to travel with the top down in the Hummer brigade.
"Uh, no," he answered.
Jim Bailey, a parade participant, tried to keep spirits light. "You people look intelligent," he told passers-by. "Why are you out here?"
Mildred Lee Davis, though fretting about her muddied mink, had an answer as she headed for the bleachers on the parade route. "My father was a World War I soldier who died very young," said the 78-year-old native of Laurel, Miss., who recalled making up patriotic songs about the flag with her father. Growing tearful at the memory, she added: "I came here for my dad. He gave his tomorrow for our today."
Others just wanted to be part of the extravaganza. Beverly Carr of New Jersey had to shiver for hours in a horse-drawn carriage, but she said it was worth it to get to drive two child stars for the parade (Jonathan Taylor Thomas from the TV show "Home Improvement" and Jonathan Lipnicki from the movie "Jerry Maguire," who at that moment were comfortable in a VIP heating tent.)
In the spirit of the day, Carr refused to complain, smiled and said nothing when asked whether she voted for Bush. And to mark the occasion, she renamed Bob, her towering Belgian draft horse, "Bob W."
But of the 11,000 participants, few were as cheery as James Gallagher, a George Washington impersonator. The 79-year-old Gallagher said marching in the parade was no hardship at all.
"I've had far more difficult times than this," he said, white wig dripping in the steady drizzle. "It was much worse when we were crossing the Delaware."