NEW YORK, Los Angeles Times
“You gave me the ride of my life and I tried to give as good as I got,” the 42nd and former president of the United States told a cheering crowd at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Saturday afternoon before he boarded a jet to fly into civilian life.
With his hands on the levers of power until almost the last minute, Bill Clinton finally took leave of his roller-coaster presidency, filled with triumphs and scandals of Shakespearian measure.
Instead of relaxing on his last day as president, Clinton issued 140 pardons, created yet another national monument — this one at Governors Island in New York — to bar commercial development, and authorized spending for hiring an additional 10,000 police officers.
Clinton told the crowd how he had walked out of the Oval Office at 10:00 a.m. with Chief of Staff John Podesta at his side. Podesta “was tearing up a little bit, and he said, ‘We did a lot of good, we did a lot of good,’ “ Clinton recalled to roars and cheers.
Clinton left the Oval office with a few last mementos, a pen used in signing ceremonies, some golf balls, and the handwritten version of the farewell radio address he delivered Thursday night.
Following a venerable tradition, he left behind in his desk a note for his successor, President Bush. And in one of the delicious ironies of history, Clinton also included a copy of the personal note left behind for him in 1993 by former President George Bush. “I had a very good morning,” Clinton said. “We had a sort of bittersweet goodbye at the White House. We went around and said goodbye to all the staff … we took a last look at all the rooms.”
Then it was time for another tradition, the polite, sometimes strained interlude where the outgoing powers greet their successors, make small talk and prepare for the ride to the Capitol for the swearing-in. Departing Vice President Al Gore, and his wife Tipper, incoming Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynn, and congressional leaders of both parties mingled with the Clintons, Bush and his wife, Laura.
Clinton’s mellow and relaxed mood continued through the swearing-in ceremony, where he smiled and applauded during Bush’s address.
At Andrews, he reflected on the evanescent nature of power, even the power held by a president.
Public service, he said, is like “life. It is passing, it has seasons. It is a process, not a destination.”
The work of the United States “will never be over and no one will get to do it forever; and that’s not all bad,” he said. The chance to work in government “was a great gift to us and we should not be sad today; we should be grateful.”
After the speech, Clinton, his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat-New York, daughter Chelsea, some friends and staff members boarded the 747, with the words United States of America and the presidential seal on the side. Also aboard was Buddy, the former first dog, who goes to the New York home with the family, while Socks, the former first cat, goes to live in northern Virginia with Betty Currie, Clinton’s former secretary.
The plane took off in driving rain, without any of the customary salutes from the Air Force personnel on the ground. No longer was Clinton president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces. The plane is called Air Force One, and the personnel salute only when the president is aboard. On Saturday, the jet was simply Special Air Mission 28000 (for the number on the tail), flying citizen Bill Clinton and his family home to New York.