Clinton finds the crush of goodwill a bit daunting

January 22, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- On his first day in the White House, Bill Clinton learned that his reach exceeds his grasp, even if he is the president of the United States.

In one last symbolic flourish before buckling down to work, President Clinton threw open the doors of the nation's executive mansion yesterday so that the ordinary people who helped put him in the White House could drop by for a handshake and a hello.

After three hours, he had greeted about 750 guests who were ushered into the diplomatic reception room, where he stood before a crackling fireplace with his wife, Hillary, Vice President Al Gore, and Mr. Gore's wife, Tipper.

But he was fast running out of time. Looming just ahead was a meeting with top appointees and an afternoon reception for 500 fellow Arkansans. And outside on the cold south lawn, beneath increasingly threatening skies, another 1,500 guests were still shuffling toward the door.

Conceding defeat to the clock, the Clintons and Gores abandoned the receiving line format and took the party outside, where they tried to rush a handshake to all who remained.

"We're going to work this out," the new president told them from a stairway beneath the Truman balcony. "We will try to shake hands with everyone before you all freeze to death."

His intention had been to greet some of his supporters, he said, but unexpectedly "half the country showed up."

Mr. Clinton was not the first president to throw an open house as the ultimate way to demonstrate that he is the peoples' tenant.

Teddy Roosevelt did it. Andy Jackson did it, and his friends from Tennessee behaved so badly that the state is still trying to live it down.

Mr. Clinton's party was carefully orchestrated. The National Park Service accepted requests for tickets to the affair, and after receiving some 85,000 of them finally invited about 2,500 people.

But when they lined up to enter the White House grounds yesterday, they were joined by dozens of gate-crashers, who either were ignorant or disdainful of the arrangement.

Andrew Levy, a 20-year-old journalism student from New Jersey, bedded down in a red sleeping bag at 2:30 a.m. When the gates opened, Park Service guards didn't have the heart to turn him away.

Mr. Clinton took his place at the head of the receiving line after only 4 1/2 hours' sleep Wednesday night and three hours the night before.

The Inauguration Day celebration, which included 11 stops and a jam session with a rock 'n' roll band during his tour of inaugural balls, left the president with bags under his eyes and a powerful thirst.

While he was shaking hands and back slapping, he several times refilled his glass with water.

"Not much sleep," he told an early arrival. "Tonight . . . sleep."

Unlike ordinarily stiff White House receiving lines, Mr. Clinton's open house was a continuation of Wednesday's celebration on the grounds of the Capitol and along Pennsylvania Avenue.

When 12-year-old Stephanie Ells of Fairfax, Va., confided to Hillary Clinton that it was her birthday, the president led the Clintons and the Gores in a loud chorus of "Happy Birthday."

Later, Mr. Clinton picked up Daniel Legum, a 7-year-old boy from nearby Bethesda, Md., who announced that he had just been elected president of his school.

"I hope you are going to be a good president," he told Mr. Clinton. To which the president replied, "I hope so, too, Daniel."

Claiming to remember everyone of the guests who recalled a fleeting moment with him somewhere along the campaign trail, Mr. Clinton appeared to enjoy every encounter, as the line passed him at the rate of about six visitors a minute.

When one guest stumbled on the Persian carpet where he was standing, Mr. Clinton had it taped to the floor, noting only half in jest that the White House might be exposed to a damage suit that would add to the federal budget deficit.

Only once during the day did he seem at a loss for an easy response. That was when he grasped a man's hand in welcome and heard him loudly say, "In the hall of seven starts and seven candlesticks can I speak in the tongue of God."

Mr. Clinton looked blank and the visitor added, "The Lord has spoken through the Messiah." With that, an aide escorted the guest toward the exit without pausing for his handshake with Hillary Clinton and the Gores.

The people at the back of the line winding across the South Lawn, past the Oval Office and the Rose Garden into the diplomatic entrance were doomed from the beginning by Mr. Clinton's decision to carry on a conversation with every visitor who reached him, often taking the time to sign autographs.

He congratulated guests on their attire, quizzed them about their hometowns, hugged their children.

In return he was given snippets of advice, lobbied, and thanked over and over again for relieving the White House of Republican occupation.

Mr. Clinton spent much of the afternoon with visitors from his native state, many of whom have been his political allies for many years.

The guests also included old friends. Among them Page Hoeper, now an aerospace consultant in Beverly Hills, Calif.

When Mr. Hoeper came through the line, the president seized him in a bear hug and called out to reporters, "This guy was with me when I shook Kennedy's hand at Boys Nation 29 years ago."

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