Heads turned and mouths gaped at the White House yesterday as one of President Clinton's harshest critics was ushered to a front-row seat for a ceremony featuring the president and first lady.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority whip, has never hidden his contempt for a president he wanted impeached and convicted. Nor have Clinton and his aides doubted that DeLay is among the fiercest of Congress's Clinton haters.

But there he was in Presidential Hall for an event that momentarily melted their mutual animosity: Celebrating a nationwide increase in adoptions, and encouraging more adoptions, especially of abused children.

DeLay and his wife are foster parents of two teenagers from abused backgrounds. Their championing of adoption and foster parenthood won DeLay a last-minute invitation Thursday night to yesterday's morning event, and he surprised some of his aides by accepting.

Even more surprising, some felt, were Clinton's public accolades for his GOP foe. The president told the audience that he recently read a newspaper profile of DeLay in which the House member criticized Clinton for taking "mulligans," or make-up shots, after a poor golf shot.

"He started grinding on my golf game and saying that I didn't count my scores and all this, and I was getting really angry," Clinton said, as DeLay laughed and nodded. "And then I get to the next part of the story, and it talks all about his experience and his commitment to adoption and to foster children, and the personal experience that he and his wife had. And my heart just melted."

The scene was even cozier at a small gathering before the event, according to witnesses. DeLay handed Clinton a business card entitled "Shine the Light on Children in the Darkness," which listed volunteer organizations for at-risk children. One witness told Reuters that DeLay said to the president, "Sir, since you won't have a whole lot to do in a year and a half, maybe you should consider being a foster parent." Clinton seemed surprised and did not respond, Reuters reported.

"The whole event was just so surreal," said Emily Miller, a DeLay spokeswoman who accompanied her boss to the White House event but not the smaller gathering. Walking through White House corridors with DeLay, she said, "people were coming out of their offices to look, doing double takes, triple takes. It was like an alien was walking through the White House."

The Clintons announced a 29 percent increase in adoptions from 1996 to 1998. They hailed a 1997 law that speeds up the adoption process and announced awards of $20 million to 35 states that have increased the number of children adopted from the public foster care system.

If Clinton's day began in bipartisan generosity, it quickly took a partisan swerve. He went from the adoption event to the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee, where he delivered a final, wistful speech before the 2000 elections consume the DNC's attentions. Clinton said Democratic candidates next year should tell voters that Republicans have been wrong time and again on issues ranging from the importance of reducing the deficit to the inconveniences of gun control and family leave measures.

"Remember how they told us family and medical leave is going to bankrupt the country?" he said, referring to a Democratic-backed measure that gives workers unpaid time off to deal with family emergencies. "Every year, we've set a new record for new small businesses formed. They were wrong and we were right about that."

Former Colorado governor Roy Romer gave his farewell speech as the DNC's general chairman. He's making way for Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, seen as a more potent fund-raiser.

Romer, who will help plan the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, attacked the Texas governor. Citing problems of the presidential administration of Bush's father, Romer told the DNC gathering: "After the failed policies of one George Bush, why would we hand the White House back to another George Bush?"

DNC staffers warmed up the audience with a video making fun of GOP firebrands, while the tune "Crazy" played in the background. The main feature? Tom DeLay.