A house but not a home, yet

Moving: The Clintons go to Chappaqua, N.Y., to unpack -- their first stay in their second home.

January 06, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. -- Darkness had already descended as the presidential motorcade slipped through the leafy, narrow roads of Westchester County.

The quiet cul-de-sac on Old House Lane was under armed guard, sealed off by the Secret Service, the neighbors hunkering in their homes, when Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged from their limousine last night for anevening of unpacking in their new $1.7 million home.

"This is an exciting time for anybody," Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman, offered helpfully, "to walk through the door of a new house, to make it look the way you want it to look, to make it your home."

The first lady's move is the first step in establishing New York residency for her expected bid for a Senate seat this fall.

But it was not until yesterday that the president hurriedly rearranged his schedule to join his wife and her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and thus avoid the potentially dreary spectacle of Mrs. Clinton moving to New York alone.

The image of a sitting president and first lady preparing a home 263 miles away from the White House was striking. Not since 1814, when Dolley and James Madison fled advancing British troops, has a first couple abandoned the White House so hastily, joked Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

The move "turns them almost into a story for People magazine," Hess said. "They've moved to a whole different level of celebrity. These are stories that have nothing to do with governance. They have more to do with kitchen utensils."

The moving vans rolled into the driveway of the Clintons' white colonial, at 15 Old House Lane, on Tuesday. They were trailed by the first family's interior decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, and Carolyn Huber, who had helped the Clintons move from the governor's mansion in Little Rock to the White House.

Though the first lady had long planned to follow her belongings to the house yesterday, the president had intended to wait until next week to make his appearance. He was to remain in Washington in case he was needed in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where Israeli and Syrian negotiators are trying to negotiate a peace accord.

But the opportunity to join the unpacking party arose earlier than expected. Having attended the Israeli-Syrian peace talks on Monday and Tuesday, the president decided he would not be needed there yesterday. Instead, he could keep his wife company and quell any speculation that Hillary Clinton was, in effect, moving out.

The Clintons last night projected an entirely different image. The first lady was beaming as she left the White House and climbed into the limousine beside her husband. Both Clintons, wearing stylish, casual suede, evinced an air of comfortable suburban chic, a departure from their formal Washington attire.

They dined in their new home last night on a home-cooked meal brought over by a friend, Jill Iscol, from a neighboring town.

Not all New Yorkers were so hospitable. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City, Mrs. Clinton's expected Senate opponent, quipped: "I feel very, very proud of the fact that people from around the country want to come to New York, including people from Arkansas. We welcome all newcomers, and recognize the fact that they are newcomers."

Lockhart insisted the president's sudden change of plans had nothing to do with political image-making and had everything to do with the thrill of moving into a home of their own for the first time in 18 years.

But the scene -- complete with stacks of cardboard boxes, hordes of police cars and a throng of television cameras parked at the neighborhood Grand Union grocery store -- could not be separated from its symbolism.

On the day he was impeached in December 1998, Clinton famously vowed to work "until the last hour of the last day of my term." Indeed, just before flying to New York yesterday, the president huddled with Democratic congressional leaders, plotting legislative strategy for the last year of his administration.

"In the first days of the new millennium, there's a new sense of hope and renewal across our country," the president said after his meeting with the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, and the House Democratic leader, Richard A. Gephardt.

"We can build on that spirit to make this not just a changing of the calendar but a changing of the times."

After the meeting, the Democratic leaders rolled out an agenda heavy with unfinished business from last year: school construction funds, targeted tax cuts, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, managed care regulations, gun control, hate-crimes legislation and a raise in the minimum wage.

But the first couple's jaunt to New York overshadowed that agenda and raised the question of how such priorities could be enacted with the first lady campaigning, the vice president running to succeed his boss and the president himself seemingly distracted.

White House aides warned that the epitaph of the Clinton administration has been written prematurely before and that the president always seems to survive to fight another day.

"Anyone who misreads this message misreads it at his own peril," Lockhart said.

This time, however, the end appears to be approaching not from scandal or self-inflicted wounds, but from the unmistakable feeling that the guard is about to change.

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