Clinton spends first day playing host White House doors are thrown open

January 22, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau Contributing writer Nelson Schwartz contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton had a tough first day at the Oval Office yesterday, as reality quickly overtook the revelry of inauguration.

His morning-after-the-night-before brought him trouble abroad and at home: more U.S. bombs falling on Iraq and his nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, heading deeper into trouble.

Both could produce increasing difficulties for Mr. Clinton, provoking early tests of his diplomatic and political leadership, but he showed no signs of sensing impending crises.

He threw the White House open to the public in the morning, partied with fellow Arkansans in the afternoon and invited a handicapped group that had missed the inaugural parade because its float broke down to come see him.

He missed his early-morning jog, but for a man who had less than six hours sleep -- he got home from the inaugural balls after 2 a.m. and was awakened at 8 a.m. -- he kept up the pace impressively throughout the day.

Mr. Clinton took time out to give his White House staff a pep talk, telling them that he wanted teamwork and high ethical standards but that they also should have fun. But there was little time for fun yesterday as the aides settled into their new quarters, sorted out phones and files, and learned who sat where.

The president also signed the documents creating his new National Economic Council and appointed its director, Robert E. Rubin, to his National Security Council, highlighting the economic priority of his foreign policy.

But the day might be most remembered for the open house, which brought ordinary Americans through the entrance usually

used by foreign dignitaries. The visitors found their president and vice president, and their wives, standing beneath a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in front of a log fire, waiting to shake their hands.

The mood was spontaneous and sometimes unpredictable. One visitor introduced the man next to him as his wife, and another remarked, "I'm a hillbilly, too." Several children got hugs and high fives from Mr. Clinton; a few others received happy birthday serenades.

Mr. Clinton reveled in a slice of Americana: a man dressed as Uncle Sam, complete with a striped top hat, and a woman draped in an American flag and sporting sunglasses resembling the Statue of Liberty's crown.

Two people suggested that Mr. Clinton withdraw the nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general. One man said, "I'd like to thank you for your support for the gay and lesbian community." A Catholic priest said, "I hope you do something about gun control."

And one woman told the sometimes tardy president to "be on time."

Grace Tuanmu, 23, of Rockville, Md., brought Hillary Clinton a pair of hairpins she and a friend had made. "We noticed that she has been wearing her hair up a lot lately," said Ms. Tuanmu, adding that she asked Mr. Clinton whether he liked his new home. "He said, 'Yes, but I'm having trouble finding things.' "

Yvonne Adams, 17, a student at Sidwell Friends School, which Chelsea Clinton will attend, assured Mr. Clinton, "You made a great choice."

Stephanie Ells of Fairfax, Va., will remember her 12th birthday because the president, the vice president and their wives joined in singing "Happy Birthday" to her in front of a national audience.

So many people turned up that not all could be received. White House officials tried to limit the group to 1,300 winners of a lottery, but passers-by joined the line, too. Mike Cole, on a business trip from Los Angeles, was jogging past the White House when he decided to pop in to shake the president's hand. To his surprise, he succeeded.

For more than three hours, Mr. Clinton welcomed the public to his new home, telling one woman: "It's your house, too."

In the afternoon, the crowd became so large that Mr. Clinton left the Diplomatic Reception Room and stepped out onto the White House lawn in an effort to greet as many people as possible before the open house ended.

PD There was a little pushing and shoving, and Mr. Clinton tried to

calm the guests. "You're citizens, too, and this is your house, and I'm just a tenant here," he said. "But we had to try to figure out how to work it out, so we're doing our best."

After opening the White House to strangers in the morning, the Clintons greeted old friends in the afternoon, when Arkansans, many of them from his hometown, Hope, visited. Randy Littleston, a reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, estimated that the Clintons knew about half the guests.

There were the four daughters of Dr. Rex Horn, Mr. Clinton's pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. They got a hug. There was longtime Clinton political crony Arch Monroe, who spearheaded tax reform in Arkansas for Mr. Clinton. And there was Ernie Green, one of the "Little Rock Nine" who integrated Central High School in 1957.

One outsider who attended was Page Hoeper of Beverly Hills, Calif. He was in the famous 1963 photo when the teen-age Bill Clinton shook hands with President John F. Kennedy, lighting the political fires that led him to the White House.

There was one vein of tension inside the White House yesterday. The press was unhappy. Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos barred reporters from a part of the White House West Wing where they traditionally have been able to talk to their sources.

The restriction provoked particular resentment because it came from a new president who promised to run an open and inclusive administration.

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