President Clinton carefully, stiffly, navigated his way down the steps of his helicopter yesterday, stopped, stared and laughed out loud. In the middle of a solemn receiving line stood C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, wearing a suit coat, Bermuda shorts, a cast on his bare right leg and a knee sock on the other.
The injured president pointed his cane at Ruppersberger, who had surgery recently, and shouted out that he would have come in similar attire, had he known. Then he noticed Del. Ruth M. Kirk, standing next to Ruppersberger and wearing a cast on her foot from her surgery.
"Baltimore and Maryland have really gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable," the president said, according to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who was standing at the end of the receiving line.
The president had landed at Baltimore's Montebello Filtration Plant No. 1 on his way to commencement exercises at Morgan State University, a few blocks away on Hillen Road. The kerosene smell from Marine One, the presidential helicopter, mixed aromatically with the scent of chlorine.
Schmoke was not about to let the moment pass uncelebrated.
He handed Clinton a tie, a Baltimore bicentennial tie, a tie so loud it could be heard shouting up a hillside where the White House press corps watched in awe.
"It's an acquired taste," Schmoke conceded. "It's got black-eyed Susans, lacrosse sticks, a picture of Camden Yards, the Chesapeake Bay, crabs and our bicentennial motto -- America's City of Firsts. It's a very busy tie."
The president accepted the tie, Schmoke said with a hint of relief in his voice. A few minutes later, when the president arrived at the Morgan State campus, he sat for a moment in the presidential limousine. Schmoke dared to dream.
"Can I hope against hope he might be changing his tie?" the mayor said to a nearby Secret Service agent, who only looked discreet. The president emerged without the tie. "Aw, shucks," Schmoke said, "we lost that one."
The president went on to give a stirring graduation speech. He sang along exuberantly with the Morgan State choir, and then he returned ceremoniously to Montebello Filtration Plant No. 1, his limo driving down the wrong side of Hillen Road, preceded by a dozen police officers on motorcycles and followed by a caravan of guests and aides.
A quick fix
Inside the cavernous filtration plant, city workers had thrown up some curtains, the way a surprised housekeeper might hurriedly throw the clutter into a closet when unexpected guests arrive.
The president walked in, past giant sluice gates, big, industrial green posts with screwlike spirals on the top, so large they looked as if only Paul Bunyan could take a wrench to them.
The plant wasn't operating because of renovations, but normally 250 million gallons of water flow through every day, infused with fluoride, suffused with lime and generally being dusted off for public consumption. Clinton was preparing for similar treatment, only his was a rite of political purification.
In the hallway, overlooking acres of stagnant water, punctuated by control boards regulating turbidity and effluent, stood about two dozen very pleased Maryland legislators.
When the president visited Annapolis in February, he dutifully had his picture taken with numerous delegates. Then, in a flash of second-term ennui, he suddenly chucked it and took off to buy Valentine's Day presents for his wife and daughter. About 30 legislators were still waiting in line, unphotographed and unhappy.
A second chance
Later, the politician in Clinton reasserted itself. Legislators got a call from the governor's office Friday morning, asking them if they would like to travel to Baltimore on Sunday for a photo op with the president.
"It's the most exciting thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime," Del. Mary Ann Love, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said yesterday.
She risked making herself late for the annual Glen Burnie Memorial Day parade, she said, but she had to do it.
"I was not going to not meet the president of the United States," she said. Love got her picture -- she's going to save it for her grandchildren -- and arrived at the parade in plenty of time to board the 1951 truck awaiting her.
Del. Michael A. Crumlin came from Mitchellville in Prince George's County and declared it was worth missing church for.
Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the House, said legislators were willing to drive from all over for that one moment when the worn 1913-era brick plant was transformed into political paradise.
"All we needed was a blue backdrop and the flags," Taylor said.
Taylor already had his pictures -- three of them -- with Clinton, and they hang in his Annapolis office, his Cumberland office and his home.
"You get jaded by a lot of things," he said, "but not by meeting the president."