WASHINGTON -- Hours after being relegated to an infamous place in history as the second U.S. president to be impeached, William Jefferson Clinton, who once dreamed of a sterling presidential legacy, vowed to remain in office "until the last hour of the last day of my term."
Speaking on the South Lawn of the White House as twilight fell -- backed by much of the Democratic membership of the House and with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, by his side -- Clinton denounced the "politics of personal destruction" and insisted he would fight to hold onto his job.
"I want the American people to know today that I am still committed to working with people of good faith and good will of both parties to do what's best for our country to bring our nation together, to lift our people up, to move us all forward together," Clinton said.
His jaw clenched at times, Clinton seemed to strain to play down the gravity and sadness of the day for him. In a stiff and carefully orchestrated public appearance, Clinton held onto his wife's hand like a lifeline and smiled tepidly as they walked together from the Oval Office and into the crowd of Democrats who had come from Capitol Hill to show their enduring support for him.
In his remarks, Clinton made no direct mention of the fate that had just befallen him. But he said he would seek a bipartisan compromise to avoid a trial in the Senate, which must decide whether the 42nd president should be convicted and removed from office.
"The question is what are we going to do now," Clinton said, as a Christmas tree shimmering from the Oval Office provided an incongruously festive background.
"I have accepted responsibility for what I did wrong in my personal life, and I have invited members of Congress to work with us to find a reasonable bipartisan and proportionate response.
"That approach was rejected today by Republicans in the House, but I hope it will be embraced by the Senate. I hope there will be a constitutional and fair means of resolving this matter in a prompt manner," he said.
During remarks by Vice President Al Gore, House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt and the president's chief of staff, John Podesta, that preceded his own, Clinton stood motionless and uncharacteristically expressionless in a stark black suit, his hands by his side or behind his back.
His wife, who paid an emotional early morning visit to House Democrats on Capitol Hill yesterday at which she professed her love and support for her husband, nodded in agreement with the speakers, tears welling in her eyes.
"This is the saddest day I have seen in our nation's capital," Gore said, "because today's vote in the House of Representatives disregarded the plain wishes and good will of the American people and the plain meaning of our Constitution."
Gore, who would become president if Clinton resigned or were removed from office, said he was confident that Clinton would ultimately be regarded as one of America's greatest presidents.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the verdict of history will undo the unworthy judgment rendered a while ago in the United States Capitol," the vice president said.
Gephardt said: "We have just witnessed a partisan vote that was a disgrace to our country and our Constitution. The Democratic caucus in the House will continue to stand alongside our president."
The Democrats cheered the president throughout his remarks, and afterward crowded around him to exchange handshakes, embraces, even oddly cheery wishes of "Merry Christmas."
Normally a man who can't resist shaking another hand, Clinton seemed eager to retreat to the Oval Office, even as he thanked the lawmakers one by one and made startlingly lighthearted comments, such as, "We're going Christmas shopping this week."
Twice, he reached for his wife's hand and clung to it firmly even as she stretched to hug lawmakers.
Once inside the Oval Office, Clinton hugged his now famous secretary, Betty Currie, one of the central players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal that has put his presidency in grave jeopardy.
House Democrats had made the short trip to the White House in two buses yesterday just after the final impeachment vote. In a private meeting in the East Room, they sought to buoy the president's spirits and assure him that they stoutly opposed any consideration of resignation.
During the closed-door meeting, Clinton expressed gratitude to the Democratic members for their nearly unanimous support -- only five Democrats voted for impeachment -- and said he wished he had never put them through this ordeal.
From the private East Room session, Clinton and the first lady, flanked by Gore, Gephardt and Podesta, walked along the wreath-dotted White House colonnade to the Oval Office, smiling and chatting animatedly.
They were followed by the parade of House members, which made its way to the South Lawn to form a backdrop and await Clinton's first public post-impeachment appearance.
Prayer during vote