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Clinton's Night of Thanks

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page D06

After all the talk of the future, and the bridge, and the 21st century, inauguration night for President Clinton seemed like a stroll through his past.

His mood was almost wistful, emotional, as he recalled exactly what percentage of the vote he got in Ohio, and that in Pennsylvania, in both elections he started ahead in the returns and finished ahead.

At the California ball he spoke of his great gratitude that that state stuck with him, as he had with it, through "floods, fires, earthquakes—everything but locusts," as he put it. "I can never thank you enough for your uncommon support."

At the Florida ball he told a little story of how everybody had laughed when he said he would win the state this time. "I want to thank you for making me look smarter than all those little experts who worked for me," he said.

In the Arkansas and New Hampshire balls he spoke of how the people of those two states, which he referred to as his home state and his adopted state, stuck by him when everyone was pronouncing him dead.

The evening seemed less like a party for the president and more a sentimental journey. The expression on his face was one of a man who could hardly bear to give up what it took to get to this night.

His first dance with daughter Chelsea was at the Arkansas ball. At the end, he gave her a kiss on her cheek in a touch that was almost bittersweet, part of a night that will never happen again.

As often as not throughout the night, he declined to get into the playfulness of emotions. When, at the New England ball, someone offered him a Patriots cap, he started to put it on but then thought better of it. At the California ball, when the crowd started chanting "We want Bill! We want Bill!" he pretended to reach for a set of bongos and then stopped.

The closest he got to giddy was at the Pennsylvania and Ohio ball, where the entertainment was the Isley Brothers and the Coasters. As he was turning to leave he pointed to the bands and cried, "I’m so jealous, my lost youth."

For the first time he and Hillary Clinton really broke out and started to move like the postwar baby boomers they are, swaying their hips, moving their bodies.

The band responded with a chorus: "We love you/ Yes we do."

The president seemed less tentative, more like he was actually having fun. It was the fun of a man recapturing a high point in his life.

At the 21st Century Ball, the president received the most deafening reception of the night—screams more appropriate to a rock star than a politician.

He checked his note cards. "Are you happy?" he asked. "Are you proud? Are you ready?" He then thanked the young crowd for their votes and told them the entire speech yesterday was "about you."

The president and first lady danced to "Bye Bye Love," and a local deejay sent the noise levels from the crowd to new heights with the cry, "Give it up for the coolest president on the planet."

If you didn’t know which of the Clintons had been elected president, you’d think it was Hillary. She looked much more upbeat and relaxed than her husband throughout the evening.

But even she looked a little teary at the Arkansas ball when she told a long story, the punch line of which was: "It was a very lucky day when I worked up the courage to move to Arkansas."

Throughout the evening, Clinton’s refrain was, "It’s better the second time around. Everybody is asking me about that. But it’s better the second time because America is better."

At ball after ball, he and Hillary danced to "Unforgettable." At one he could be seen mouthing these words to his wife: "I love this song."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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