Letter from Air Force One: Clinton?s Farewell Trip

Bill Clinton didn???t look like a man with just three days left in his presidency. Heading to Little Rock for his last official trip aboard Air Force One on Wednesday morning, he still had work to do. ???You got anybody you want to pardon???? joked Clinton, appearing in the press cabin clutching a sheaf of papers. Earlier in the morning, he???d added another eight national monuments to the country???s roster. ???Everybody in America either wants somebody pardoned or a national monument,??? he quipped. Indeed, Clinton has been running at such a furious pace that he???s given little thought to what he???ll do once George W. Bush takes the oath of office on Saturday at noon. ???I???m gonna rest for a while,??? he said.

There were plenty of signs that an era was coming to an end. As Clinton???s plane taxied down the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, blue-suited maintenance workers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, saluting him one by one. Reporters who???d covered the 1992 campaign resurfaced for the nostalgic trip back to Little Rock. But this time, the scribes took more souvenir snapshots than notes. Once the plane landed, Chelsea mugged for the cameras while the president pumped his fists triumphantly in the air.

It was a scene almost impossible to envision the day I started covering the White House: August 17, 1998. My NEWSWEEK editors and I had thought a quiet Monday in August would be the perfect time to begin the beat. But it turned out to be the day Clinton testified before Ken Starr???s grand jury and admitted his inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky on national television. Soon, impeachment proceedings were in full swing and I wondered whether my new assignment might come to an early end.

Clinton, of course, survived. Looking back at images from 1992, I???m struck by how the years in office haven???t really weathered the man. Sure, his hair???s more silvery and his skin more wrinkled. But despite all he???s endured, he doesn???t really look beaten down. He looks like someone who could go on for another four years. At least.

If Clinton???s last trip was a homecoming, it was also a substitute for what he couldn???t do. As he???s grown accustomed to doing every January, the president found himself striding down the aisle of a legislature packed with backslapping pols. But instead of delivering his usual State of the Union before a joint session of Congress, Clinton had to settle for a speech before the Arkansas legislature. Standing in the well of the colonnaded chamber where he had taken the oath of office for governor five times, Clinton spoke for nearly an hour. He thanked a litany of Arkansans who???d served in his administration. He rattled off his accomplishments on the economy, education, childhood immunizations, the environment, gun control. But then, oddly, he launched into a list of unfinished business: school construction, teacher training, expanding health insurance, integrating ex-convicts back into society. It was not the speech of a man reconciled to leaving the spotlight behind.

Later in the evening, Clinton returned to the chilly Little Rock airport hangar where friends had gathered for his Washington send-off exactly eight years ago. The crowd was cold and the president, as usual, was an hour late. But when he finally arrived and ???Hail to the Chief??? blared from the loudspeakers, Clinton got the warm homecoming he???d been hoping for. ???We love you!??? shouted some fans. Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey offered such a rousing appreciation that Clinton joked he hoped the speech had been taped. ???I???m gonna play that someday when I???m feeling down,??? he said. With just hours left in his term, that day could come sooner than he thinks.

Letter from Air Force One: Clinton?s Farewell Trip | News