HILTON HEAD, S.C. — When President Clinton tried to take a few days off in November, rain showers transformed Hawaiian golf courses into lakes and an errant Russian rocket threatened to crash into Australia.
But this time--so far--the heavens have cooperated. The president has been golfing to his heart's content since Monday, while also mingling with the invitation-only crowd of high achievers that gathers here every New Year's to celebrate the "Renaissance Weekend."
"When I asked him what he was going to do this week, he said he was going to play golf and relax," said Mary Ellen Glynn, a deputy White House press secretary.
Still, a presidential holiday can never be an entirely laid-back affair. Even as Clinton trekked the Old Tabby Links golf course in nearby Spring Island, delicate negotiations over an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank continued and the hostage crisis in Peru remained unresolved--both issues that the president has been kept abreast of.
Meanwhile, the task of preparing for his Jan. 20 inauguration looms, as does a treacherous web of politics and investigations related to Democratic fund-raising and other matters.
And the milieu Clinton picked to start off his weeklong vacation might seem many things besides restful. The Hilton Head gathering is packed with a full schedule of activities and famous names from many walks of life; this year's guest list includes Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, the former first lady Lady Bird Johnson and author Gail Sheehy.
"We don't let people rest because we figure that's what they can do for the rest of the year," said Linda LeSourd Lader, who launched the elite retreat with her husband, Philip Lader, in the early 1980s.
The president, of course, controls his own schedule. He also is free of the name-tag requirement imposed on the other 1,500 participants.
On Tuesday, for instance, he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a seminar on "spiritual life in a secular society" that reportedly featured lively exchanges between a rabbi and an evangelist. Clinton and the first lady simply listened, according to one witness (discussions at the event are considered off the record).
Soon after, the president hit the Old Tabby Links with a party that included Dennis Bakke, president of AES Corp., which White House aides said builds power plants internationally.
Later, he planned to attend a dinner and New Year's Eve celebration with other event participants. On the agenda: an "Auld Lang Syne sing-along" as the clock struck midnight.
Clinton has attended the Hilton Head confab for the past 13 years; this year, according to White House aides, he is staying at a two-story home near the beach owned by Atlanta businessman Bob Dickens.
The event is a distinctive get-together of the successful, one that once seemed a metaphor for Clinton's early approach to the presidency, given the emphasis on discussion and widespread access to the Oval Office that critics viewed as lax management. The gathering also seemed to reflect the important role played by "friends of Bill," a nationwide coterie of contacts that the president expanded virtually everywhere he traveled as a younger man.
Yet the metaphor may no longer be apt, despite Clinton's continued affection for the event.
Clearly, he has sought to run a more disciplined administration, and outgoing Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta moved to limit the access to the president that some considered time-consuming and inefficient.
"It's probably true--there's certainly a more rigorous managerial approach in the White House than before," said one longtime event participant who is familiar with the workings of government.
Even the networking that goes on at the gathering may be less a symbol of Clinton's White House than it used to be.
Such tried-and-true "friends of Bill" as Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor and others are leaving the administration. Renaissance Weekend co-founder Philip Lader is quitting as head of the Small Business Administration, although he may be considered for an ambassadorship.
While Clinton passed up most of this year's schedule, participants could sign up for dinner conversations with Zoe Baird, the ill-fated attorney general nominee who is now a senior vice president of Aetna Life & Casualty; Theodore Sorenson, a onetime speech writer for President John F. Kennedy; and Deborah Tannen, author of the book "You Just Don't Understand."
They could attend a forum on science and technology featuring Bill Nye, the "science guy" on television; join in a "fun run" on the beach with Alan Murray, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal; listen to Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers hold forth on the U.S. economy; and participate in a multitude of other activities over four days.
"I walked on the beach with Judge [Joseph] Wapner and had my nails done next to Ruth Westheimer," recalled Mary Lou Quinlan, who runs an advertising firm on Wall Street. "We didn't talk about law, and we didn't talk about sex."
Such incongruous pairings are part of the idea of the assemblage that has been derided on various grounds, from its exclusivity to what some perceive as a liberal bias.
Philip Lader on Tuesday maintained that the event provides a civil, constructive way for a broad array of people to learn from one another. "What we seek is to provide a retreat for innovative leaders, where there is more light than heat," he said.
Fewer than 50 families out of the 500 families represented here are directly involved in politics, Lader said.
And the most famous of all the 50 plans to take off today for St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, before returning to Washington on Sunday.