Though swamped this week with the Israel-Syria peace talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va., President Clinton discovered late Tuesday that, in fact, he did have time to squeeze in an important family matter.
So instead of letting his wife move out of the White House today without him on hand--as was the original plan, apparently--he accompanied Hillary Rodham Clinton here this evening for the first couple's first sleepover in their new New York home.
They arrived early this evening, the picture of a togetherness that isn't always so, as Chappaquans lined the local Grand Union parking lot to catch a glimpse of the nation's most famously complex figures on the first day of their incarnation as a commuter couple.
"I'm excited, I think it's great, and I hope they're gonna be happy here," said Jan Bass, a longtime resident who rushed over from exercise class to catch sight of the first couple.
Ah, yes, the Clintons, some here say, eyebrows raised. Those are the skeptics. The Clintons' awkward moving and scheduling and image-handling raised innumerable questions in Washington and New York this week and of course sent a cavalcade of reporters, Secret Service agents and White House advance crews descending on this place, which will never be the same.
So quaint, so placid, so semi-rurally rarefied: That was Chappaqua, B.C. But at least people will stop confusing it with Chappaquiddick, some residents say.
Others can barely stand it, are virtually fuming.
"It takes a village? Okay, well, she's taking our village and turning it into a circus," complained Deborah Alexander, 44, who described herself as a housewife. "What's the word? 'Interlopers.' " That's how she described the Clintons.
This is the spectacle of the Clintons as they work out their lives and careers and futures. She will be running for the Senate in New York and needs to live here to make it credible, and legal. So she's moved, accompanied today by her mother, Dorothy Rodham. He is running the final lap toward a legacy--and, oh yes, finishing out the final year of his term. So at the White House he must stay.
Nothing like this has ever happened. No sitting first lady has ever run for office, and certainly none has ever downgraded her duties so deeply and moved out. That is why reporters spend a lot of time trying to understand what it all means. Like, did the president and his wife not coordinate their schedules before she made her/their move-in plan? Did he decide to arrive at the new house with his wife to dispel the degrees of separation that seem to be settling over them day by day? Indeed, speculation was rife inside and outside the White House that President Clinton felt it wouldn't look so good for his wife to start unpacking without him. The moving trucks arrived Tuesday, bearing the Arkansas belongings the Clintons had put in storage before they entered the White House seven years ago.
Who could have predicted that things would turn out as they have: scandal after scandal, impeachment and acquittal, her stiff defenses of him discredited by him. And now she strikes out on her own, seeking public office even as a sitting first lady, while he slides through the twilight of these most eventful two terms in office.
Clinton's White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, would not touch the issue of the first couple's image and whether today's arrival here was intended to refurbish it.
"He is doing it," Lockhart said of the move-in, "because he has to balance the fact that he's got quite an important job with very demanding responsibilities, and the fact--like I think every American can understand--it's quite an exciting event to move into a house and it's something that, unless job or family requirements keep you from, you'd want to do."
Brushing aside the unusual aspects of the present situation, Lockhart told the press: "They're going to do exactly what you did when you moved into your house. . . . This isn't complicated. This is an exciting time for anyone to walk through the door of a new house, to have the ability to make it look the way you want it to look, to make it comfortable, to make it your house."
Besieged by tourists and rubbernecking local motorists, the residence on Old House Lane is a 101-year-old Dutch Colonial nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac, surprisingly hard by the neighboring homes even though situated on 1.1 acres. The Clintons bought it for $1.7 million, well above the average $600,000 sale price for Chappaqua real estate. The hamlet, which is part of the town of New Castle, has a population of just over 11,000, with an average household income of about $228,000. It is among Westchester County's more affluent communities, though perhaps with fewer noses in the air than elsewhere in these wealthy parts.
The house, with its five bedrooms, four bathrooms, swimming pool and wrap-around balcony, will be the base from which Hillary Clinton will launch her Senate bid. She plans to spend most of her time here in New York and to set aside most of her first-lady duties as she campaigns for the seat being vacated this year by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the veteran Democrat, and contested also by New York's Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani.
As she progresses with what Lockhart verbosely called "making a case in New York for what kind of senator New York should have," things within the White House "will not be impacted in any severe way." He added that the president expressed his views on the issue weeks ago, saying he supported his wife's endeavor and that they would adjust to their new situation.
Today before they left Washington, President Clinton was asked if he had any advice for commuter couples.
"I don't think we've had enough experience to offer advice. But we're about to go up there and start moving stuff into our house."
Staff writers Charles Babington in Washington and Liz Leyden in New York contributed to this report.
CAPTION: A Secret Service agent takes a call next to a rock yesterday in the yard of the first lady's new home in Chappaqua, N.Y.