WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton prides himself on being the boy from Hope, Ark., the down-home Democrat who eschews the trappings of the Imperial Presidency.
Nonetheless, the White House acknowledged yesterday, Mr. Clinton kept Air Force One sitting on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday while he treated himself to a haircut by Cristophe of Beverly Hills, hairdresser to the stars.
Meanwhile, two of the airport's four runways were shut down for 56 minutes, delaying at least one commuter flight from Yuma, Ariz., for 25 minutes and another from Palmdale, Calif., for 17 minutes, according to a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The president has to get his hair cut like everybody else," a White House spokesman said yesterday, bombarded with reporters' questions about the president's pausing for an on-board haircut. The spokesman insisted the White House did not intentionally delay any commercial flights.
But Republican critics seized the moment, blasting the populist president's apparent regal attitude.
"He ought to be more concerned about trimming the deficit than trimming his hair," scolded Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., in remarks on the House floor yesterday.
And Edward J. Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist, called it "the ultimate arrogance."
Among the White House news corps yesterday, the case of the runway coiffure eclipsed the president's battle with Congress over his economic plan, his emerging health-care proposal, and even the sudden firing Wednesday of the entire White House travel office.
"Is the White House at all concerned that this makes the president look a little foolish and self-indulgent?" a journalist asked George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman, at his daily briefing.
"Well, no," Mr. Stephanopoulos replied. "I think it's common practice." He said former President George Bush often slept on Air Force One while awaiting an early-morning flight, but several reporters corrected him, noting that Mr. Bush had done so only once, and that was at Andrews Air Force Base.
Mr. Stephanopoulos was also asked if Mr. Clinton had paid Cristophe his going rate of $200 per trim.
"The president and his family have a personal services contract with Cristophe to cover things like this," the spokesman explained. "It covers things like makeup and hair, and they just pay for it. It's for the whole family."
A reporter asked if the contract covers Socks, the First Cat. At that, even the beleaguered spokesman laughed.