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Part of, but Apart From, It All

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E17

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman will never forget the first Sunday that Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived for the 11 a.m. service at Foundry United Methodist Church. The first couple trudged the eight blocks from the White House through a foot of snow after one of the worst storms in a decade.

President Clinton with James Spaid on the golf course at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Prince William County .
Photo courtesy The White House.
James Spaid will never forget the first round that he caddied for Clinton at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville. To thank him, the president removed his own baseball cap, borrowed a pen to sign his name and placed the cap on Spaid's head.

Tommie Adgerson, who has overcome years of homelessness and addiction, will never forget his Thanksgiving with Clinton at Blair Shelter in Northeast Washington. Holding a carving knife behind the serving table, the president asked whether he preferred turkey or ham.

During the four years since they arrived at the White House, the Clintons have moved through the lives of ordinary Washingtonians. And they have fashioned Washington into a version of home.

For every president and his family, Washington is a place of many meanings. It is the hub of power and of domestic life. Local neighborhoods and institutions are props for political statements and for fun. Interactions, large and small, are laden with symbolism.

For the current first family, the relationship with the capital city is one of contradictions.

Clinton is the only president of the 20th century who has not maintained a private home or retreat outside Washington. His life is moored here to an uncommon degree. Yet he is the president who heightened the separation of the White House from the city by closing part of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Clinton portrays himself as a populist. He is a champion of public education. Yet his daughter, Chelsea, who will turn 17 next month, attends Sidwell Friends School, one of Washington's exclusive private schools.

Clinton identifies with John F. Kennedy. The 35th president became a fulcrum of Washington "society." Yet Clinton prefers the company of his family and a circle of old friends.

Although the Clintons are regarded by some as isolated, they often venture from the White House. Unlike the Reagans and even more than the Bushes, "the Clintons have been all over the city," said historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written about first ladies.

Clinton is known for jogging around town. He goes a few times a week when the weather and his travel schedule permit. His most common route lately has been through Fort McNair in Southwest Washington, although he also jogs on the Mall, at Hains Point and occasionally in Rock Creek Park.

Less publicized are the long, impromptu walks that Hillary Rodham Clinton takes in Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses to try to look inconspicuous. If a passerby recognizes her, stopping to remark that she looks like the first lady, Hillary Clinton replies, "So I've been told," according to one of her aides.

The Clintons strive for normalcy as parents. They attend back-to-school nights and fund-raising auctions at Sidwell and performances of the Washington School of Ballet, where Chelsea studies 2 hours each weekday. They take family bicycle rides along the C&O Canal. Once, Hillary Clinton biked up Connecticut Avenue to meet her daughter at the National Zoo, where she had been assigned a school project.

The family drops in on restaurants, often on Sundays after church, with no more than an hour's notice. One Saturday evening in April, as Clinton dined with Chelsea at one of his favorite spots, the Sequoia restaurant in Georgetown, a wedding reception was under way. The extroverted president volunteered to pose for pictures with a startled bridal couple, two young doctors who had just started their salads.

Despite the Clintons' many outings and their efforts to bridge the gulf between the powerful and the people, they have no contact with many familiar features of Washington life. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton has ridden the Metro in the last four years. "It would be very disruptive for the system," said Neel Lattimore, the first lady's spokesman.

Frequent movie-watchers, the Clintons arrange for screenings at the White House, often on Friday nights. Sometimes, they invite friends. They have seen more than a dozen films in recent months, including "My Fellow Americans," in which two former U.S. presidents flee assassins, and "Independence Day," in which the White House is blown up by space aliens.

They do not go to local movie theaters. The logistics of security would be too difficult.

President Clinton jogs with a Secret Service agent near the Jefferson Memorial, 1996.
Frank Johnston, The Washington Post.
The president "loves going out. He loves people," said Thomas Caplan, a novelist and one of Clinton's roommates when they were students at Georgetown University, who has remained a friend. "He hesitates sometimes to go because he worries that he is inconveniencing people. . . . I would feel the same way if I closed the streets when I traveled."

Such a quandary -- how to be part of the city without unduly disrupting it -- is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. Earlier, the walls between presidents and citizens were more permeable.

The President's House, as it was first known, was opened to the public for the first time on New Year's Day in 1801, shortly after President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in. The building was incomplete and lacked furniture, but the event became an annual tradition that lasted until Herbert C. Hoover abolished it during the Depression. Abraham Lincoln is said to have shaken hands for three hours on New Year's Day in 1863 before retreating upstairs to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

If earlier Washingtonians had greater access to the White House, earlier first families roamed the city more readily.

During part of her husband's administration, Eleanor Roosevelt maintained an office at Dupont Circle. "She hurried down the driveway and out the front gates to the bus stop or, on a sunny day, marched resolutely a full 10 blocks up Connecticut Avenue. . .. And on her way back, she gathered up people to bring home for lunch," J.B. West, a former White House chief usher, wrote in his book, "Upstairs at the White House."

Roosevelt was the foremost of many first ladies who have used their position to draw attention to local causes. Dolley Madison was a patron of a Washington orphanage. A century later, Ellen Wilson crusaded against alley dwellings, slums behind the stately houses of Georgetown and Capitol Hill.

But it was Roosevelt who worked most intensely on the city's problems, including substandard reform schools, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. She led wives of members of the Cabinet and Congress on inspection tours of poor housing and sanitation, according to Allida Black, a historian who has written about Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt's example, Jacqueline Kennedy championed a Washington National Cultural Center, later named for her husband; promoted the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue; and helped to prevent the destruction of 18th-century town houses on Lafayette Square.

Her successor, Lady Bird Johnson, used Washington as a main site for her interest in "beautification." She led efforts to clean parks and statues, provide playgrounds in blighted neighborhoods and landscape the route from National Airport into the city along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Hillary Clinton also has selected community projects, although less regularly and less visibly. In recent months, she has supported the Washington Interfaith Network, a fledgling group formed by local African American ministers that is trying to improve housing, create after-school programs and reduce crime.

Children have been a frequent theme of her community interactions. She worked with Mother Teresa and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to create a home in Chevy Chase for pregnant teenagers who plan to give up their babies and for infants awaiting adoption.

Each of the last three years at Christmastime, she has visited Children's Hospital to greet children who are ill. Socks, the first cat, has accompanied her.

The day before their most recent visit, Ashley Thomas, 8, who is receiving chemotherapy treatments, was told by her mother that she had been chosen to escort the president's wife through the cancer unit.

The next morning, Ashley was sitting in bed, eating her breakfast of Frosted Flakes, when a nurse said the first lady had arrived. "I went to meet her in the hallway. She shook my hand," Ashley said. "I took her to all the different rooms . . . to meet the other kids. I was so happy because I never met her before."

Adgerson had a similar sense of pride the afternoon in 1995 when President Clinton and his wife came for Thanksgiving dinner at Blair Shelter, on I Street NE.

That morning, Adgerson memorized the questions he wanted to ask the first couple. What were the president's plans for reducing homelessness? How would he combat drug use in the nation's cities? He drilled himself as he stood in Blair's third-floor dormitory, dressing in the white shirt, print tie and new green suit he had acquired through a clothing store's donation to the shelter.

At 2 p.m., after he had waited in the cold for the Secret Service to check the shelter, after an agent had made sure his name was on the checklist, after Clinton had heaped turkey and ham onto his plate, Adgerson found himself seated in the middle of a long folding table, directly across from the first lady. He asked his questions.

In retrospect, he has another one. "Who would think an addict and alcoholic like me would be sitting eating Thanksgiving dinner with the president?" said Adgerson, 39, who has been sober for nearly two years, has graduated from a job-training program and has attained an apartment and a $5.75-an-hour job at a CVS pharmacy. "It gave me some hope that I can better myself. . .. He got to hear my voice. I got to hear his. . . One man breaking bread with another."

The Clintons go into the community to relax as well as to perform good works.

Twice a year, Hillary Clinton visits the Georgette Klinger Skin Care Salon in Friendship Heights. Like many who interact with the first family, the salon's manager, Nancy Elliott, is protective of Hillary Clinton's privacy. She discussed the visits only after securing permission from the White House, a New York public relations firm and the salon's corporate headquarters.

Hillary Clinton, occasionally accompanied by her daughter, enters through the front door on Wisconsin Avenue, walks to the second floor and is ushered into a private room for a standard, eight-step facial that lasts 1-1/2 hours. She pays for the $72 treatment with a credit card.

The Clintons patronize the arts.

Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III, director of the National Gallery, was "up to my elbows in the garden" on a Sunday in May 1993 when he received a telephone call at home from a member of the gallery's security staff. In two hours, the Clintons wanted to visit the Impressionist exhibit from the Barnes Collection.

They have attended concerts, plays and dance performances at the Kennedy Center and shows at the National and Warner theaters, as well as their daughter's performances as "favorite aunt," a court lady and a member of the flower corps in the Washington School of Ballet's "Nutcracker." (Chelsea is the second first daughter to study at the ballet school, which created a special class for preschoolers in the early 1960s so that Caroline Kennedy could take lessons.)

The Clintons have tried many local restaurants, including the Bombay Club, Galileo, Kinkead's, Nora and Red Sage. The first family had Easter dinner last year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

It was the weekend after Easter that guests at Susan Schraufek and Erik Westerlund's wedding party at Sequoia noticed the president and his daughter having dinner in an adjacent room.

President Clinton poses with Susan Schraufek and Eric Westerlund at their wedding reception at Sequoia.
Family Photo.
When the catering manager asked Clinton whether he would congratulate the newlyweds, the president offered to do something more. With their thank-you cards, the couple sent copies of the picture taken by the White House photographer. "I had my husband on one side and him on the other," said Schraufek, 33. "Here I am grabbing his back like he is my uncle or something."

Spaid, senior caddy at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, treasures the pictures the White House photographer has taken of him with the president. And he treasures the fact that, on his second outing at the club, the president greeted him by saying: "James, how is your son, Zach? Let's see, he's got to be 8 months now."

Spaid, 35, said he believes it is difficult for a president to relax, even at golf. Some of his partners "are champing at the bit" to offer pointers. "They are throwing down balls for him. 'Mr. President, try this.' They want to say, 'I taught the president that.' "

Some of the first family's most frequent encounters with Washingtonians are for spiritual, not recreational, purposes.

They have attended Foundry at least once a month since the big snowstorm in March 1993, less than two months after Clinton took office. That Sunday morning, Wogaman, the senior minister, had just come out of a small chapel, where he had led a near-empty 9:30 a.m. service, when his wife said: "Guess what, Phil? There are a couple of Secret Service here, and they told me the Clintons are walking to church."

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman (left) greets members of his church after service.
Dudley M. Brooks, The Washington Post.
By now, members of the congregation are accustomed to the metal detectors on the way into the sanctuary.

Wogaman draws little attention to the first family's presence. Each week the Clintons are there, just before the benediction, he asks the congregation to remain in place for a few minutes afterward. He does not mention why. The Clintons leave quietly.

But their presence nevertheless has effects. Preaching without notes, gazing from the pulpit into the faces of the 500 congregants in the dark oak pews, Wogaman never forgets for an instant who is seated in the front pew on the right. "He is right there. It isn't that many feet away."

The Clintons' presence has an effect on the congregation, too. "It gives us an unusual window onto the humanity of power," Wogaman said. "Power is exercised by real human beings. They sing the hymns and pray the prayers."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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