Affable Clinton becomes loneliest man in the world

ROGER SIMON

January 21, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton is at his best when the crowds are so close that he can feel their heat.

He is at his best in small rooms, where he can embrace the people on his way in, reach out to their reaching hands and, grasping them, summon up names and family histories.

"Pete, good to see ya', good to see ya', and how's Mary? Good, good, glad of it."

Bill Clinton likes to touch people, to hold on to their arms, pump their hands, and swallow them up in great bear hugs.

It is genuine thing with him. Though he has the usual political skills, including the ability to fake sincerity, the emotions he displays are usually real and often close to the surface.

He likes people. And he likes them close enough to him so that he can feel their love and give it back.

But yesterday he found himself on a vast elevated platform in the front of the U.S Capitol, standing behind panels of bulletproof glass with the ordinary people standing far away from him and stretching into the distance.

It is not what he would have preferred. But he knew it was what he must accept. He knows that being president means, to an unavoidable extent, being distant.

With the taking of his oath of office, Clinton's life has changed forever. He joked about it in various ways all week: "I'm like the dog who chased the streetcar. Now I've caught it. What do I do with it?"

Ever since his November victory last year, Clinton has been going through what they call "the transition," but there really is no transition to the presidency.

One moment you are an ordinary person and the next moment you are the president. There is no in between.

After the 35 words that are the oath of office, it is you and you alone who can start wars or make peace, who can fulfill expectations or -- hopes.

You can have people around you, but there is an awesome isolation that comes with the awesome responsibility.

The power comes immediately and the symbols of power are immediate, too: As soon as Clinton finished his oath of office with the words that are not in the Constitution, but have been traditional ever since George Washington added them -- "So help me God" -- the cannons boomed and the band blared forth with "Hail to the Chief," played for Clinton for the first time.

There was a certain dramatic beauty to it: scores of sea gulls, who had been floating peacefully on the Capitol Reflecting Pool, suddenly took flight as the guns thundered.

The most impressive thing about watching an inauguration in person as opposed to on the small screen of a TV set is the vast scale of the event: The massive Capitol dome towering in the background, the vast Roman columns, the gigantic U.S. flag snapping in the breeze.

But you could still see the small things. You could still see the emotion on Clinton's face and you could still see his need to make the event more human than grandiose.

Because after he was done with his oath, after he was now the president, he walked over and touched someone: He walked over to George Bush, the former president, and grasped his hand and held on to it and spoke more than just a few words while Bush reached over with his left hand and grasped Clinton's elbow.

It was a gracious moment from a gracious ceremony. And if Clinton's inaugural address did not exactly soar its way into the history books, at least it could be appreciated for its earnestness and idealism.

Before Bill Clinton spoke, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne sang these lines:

" 'Tis a gift to be simple

" 'Tis a gift to be free

" 'Tis a gift to come down

"Where you ought to be."

And Bill Clinton has come down where he ought to be. In the White House.

He earned it. Through a combination of guts and smarts and just a little luck, he is now the president.

There are those who say that any Democrat could have beaten George Bush last year.

Perhaps. But only one did.

And now he has his reward:

The man who loves people has just become the loneliest man in the world.

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