Hillary Clinton sworn in amid Senate ceremony

Through tears, president sees wife become only first lady in elective office

January 04, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton took the Senate's oath of office yesterday, her new colleagues standing to applaud the historic moment as President Clinton wiped tears from his eyes.

In a ceremony that never hinted at the strains that afflict this divided Congress - and the hostility many lawmakers feel toward the Clintons - the new senator beamed as she became the only first lady ever to hold elective office and the first one to bump her husband to the sidelines with her own political triumph.

In an electric-blue pantsuit, she was escorted to the front of the chamber by New York's senior senator, Democrat Charles E. Schumer, bringing with her a gilt-edged family bible. As her husband smiled from the spectator's gallery, tightly gripping the hand of their daughter, Chelsea, Clinton raised her right hand and took the oath administered by Vice President Al Gore, the failed Democratic presidential candidate and outgoing Senate president.

The oath completed, Gore embraced her. President Clinton wiped both eyes and flashed a thumbs-up toward the Senate floor. A parade of Democrats and Republicans stopped to congratulate her as she headed toward her seat, the aisle spot occupied for years by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat she is replacing.

Sen. Strom Thurmond was among those paying respects. The 98-year-old South Carolina Republican teetered toward Clinton, grabbed her and kissed her cheek as he loudly inquired, "Can I hug ya?"

"It sunk in today," Clinton told reporters, referring to her victory in November. "It felt great. I was in awe of being in the chamber and sitting there. You know, it made me just feel like it was so right."

Her husband, wearing a Big Apple pin that read "Hillary," joined Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, his brother, Roger Clinton, and the Clintons' 6-year-old nephew, Tyler Clinton, in the Old Senate Chamber for the traditional mock swearing-in at which new members pose for pictures that cannot be taken on the Senate floor. The first lady had to pivot several times to satisfy the more than 60 news photographers crammed into the room to capture the moment.

"Ecstatic," President Clinton declared of his mood. "I'm so happy."

His wife was moved into the Old Senate Chamber first, even though pictures were supposed to be taken in alphabetical order. Senate staff blamed that on security measures, but it just seemed to enhance her celebrity status.

There was only reverence for Washington's institutions yesterday - no talk about the senators who voted to convict her husband during his impeachment trial. When Schumer asked the new senator what George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would think of this moment, she gleefully looked toward the ceiling, as if waiting for the answer from beyond.

Clinton may have been the celebrity, but yesterday she also was the new kid.

"This is the subway," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, told her with playful condescension as she prepared to board the red, white and blue cars that connect the Capitol to the Senate office buildings.

The Clintons have contracted to buy a $2.85 million house near Embassy Row in Northwest Washington, and Kennedy's wife, Vicki, welcomed the first lady to the neighborhood. "You can dog-sit for us," she joked.

The first lady was giddy as the new, elected Clinton, taking office just as her husband prepares to leave public life. She hugged a waitress near the finger sandwiches at her swearing-in party in a Senate committee room. She held Chelsea's hand in the Capitol, dropping it only when tourists asked for her autograph.

She peered through the glass in a Senate subway car, seeing Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski and waving madly. (Like other senators, Mikulski tried to play down the day's abiding first lady fixation, telling travelers in her adjoining subway car: "You saw something very historic today - 13 women sworn into the U.S. Senate.")

For the next 17 days, Clinton is both first lady and senator, leaving her staff baffled as to exactly how she should be referred to.

"I'll leave that up to the media to figure out," said spokesman Howard Wolfson. "I'm not sure a protocol has ever been established for that."

Around the Capitol, Clinton's supporters were jubilant, noting how Republicans had made the defeat of Clinton a cause celebre. She beat her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, by a margin of 12 percentage points, a fact her staff and fans planned to cheer some more last night at a Mayflower Hotel bash sponsored by New York insurance executive Walter Kaye - the Clinton supporter who helped land Monica Lewinsky a job as White House intern.

Harold Ickes celebrated at Clinton's packed swearing-in party yesterday at the Senate. He recalled urging her to run during a four-hour lunch the day the Senate was voting on her husband's impeachment.

Said Ickes: "I remember walking down the hallway toward her suite the night she won, putting my arm around her and saying: `As you look back on this, this is a great victory, but you've got to admit, this was a pretty preposterous proposition.'"

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