Clinton bids solemn farewell to his native Arkansas Oval Office journey beginning today

January 17, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. -- President-elect Bill Clinton too strikingly somber leave of his native Arkansas yesterday, recalling that Abraham Lincoln left his home state of Illinois 132 years ago and returned home only to be buried.

Predicting some "harrowing" moments in his presidential "adventure," Mr. Clinton told an airport send-off rally in Little Rock: "I don't know when I'll be home again because of the incredible press of events. . . . I ask you to pray for us. I ask you

to pull for us."

Recalling that he entered the race to change the country's course, to meet the challenges of the day and secure a future for today's children, he said: "I will do my best."

His reference to Lincoln was the only historical allusion he made. Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater in Washington on April 14, 1865, four years after his first inauguration.

The audience appeared disturbed by the tenor of Mr. Clinton's remarks and was so subdued that Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey urged the band to play.

The departure from Little Rock was clearly a sad moment for all the Clintons. The president-elect's wife, Hillary, told the crowd: "Leaving has been very hard. It is something that both Bill and I, along with Chelsea, have been trying to get ready for since the election."

Today Mr. Clinton and his family will ride to Washington from Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, near Charlottesville, join a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, pay homage at the grave of John F. Kennedy and ring the first peel of a national clarion on a replica of the Liberty Bell, opening the celebration of "America's Reunion" inaugural week.

It is a schedule heavy with symbolism, linking Mr. Clinton to three of the presidents he most admires and setting a popular, inclusive style for his administration.

The journey through 121 miles of Virginia countryside that took Jefferson four days to complete on horseback, will take Mr. Clinton little more than four hours by bus, with wayside stops to involve ordinary Americans in the process. It marks the final stage of the political odyssey that is taking this son of Hope, Ark., into the Oval Office as the 42nd and third-youngest president of the United States on Wednesday.

For Mr. Clinton, 46, there was first the bittersweet parting from the state he grew up in, has led for 12 of the past 14 years, and to which he is expected to return occasionally although he owns no property here.

The family's personal belongings were packed and gone from the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, the Clintons' only home, and were on their way to a Maryland storage depot for eventual delivery to the White House. Mr. Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, had attended her last class at the public Mann Magnet Junior High School here and will now join the eighth grade at the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

Mr. Clinton had had his last visit to the downtown McDonald's, hugged the cooks of his favorite bagels at the Community Bakery, thanked his neighbor Harry Loucks for a well-wishing note, embraced Vicki Guthrie, another neighbor who called him "a wonderful guy," pumped his last iron at the local YMCA and jogged his last early morning three miles here.

He even found time yesterday to release Chelsea's pet frog, Jeff, from a shoe box on the banks of the Arkansas River. "She decided to leave it here, where it can have a normal life," said Mr. Clinton. Asked if he was thinking of the loss of his own normal life, he said: "A little bit, but I really have worked through it now. I'm ready to go. I'm anxious."

Thousands of Arkansans, including the 123-member marching band from his hometown of Hope, are heading for Washington for the inaugural. The locals in Little Rock have been well-briefed on the Washington sights, the pitfalls of parking and the merits of Metro travel. Their local paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has chartered a private plane to fly 3,000 copies daily for sale in Washington's major hotels, and will print -- 20,000 extra copies daily to meet expected demand in Little Rock.

A frequent critic of Mr. Clinton, the newspaper gave him a scathing send-off yesterday, taking him to task for reversing himself on allowing Haitian boat people temporary asylum here. He will, instead, continue forced repatriation without hearings, a Bush administration policy he condemned in the campaign.

The paper's editorial, referring to him as "William Jefferson (Slick) Clinton," said: "What a shock it would be if Bill Clinton would show up those of us who have come to know and to doubt him -- who have grown bored and boring even to ourselves cataloging his endless equivocations, sidesteps and 'explanations.' Surprise us Mr. President. Keep a promise."

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