WASHINGTON — In a gesture of his determination to put the partisan wars of the last four years behind him, President Clinton bestowed the nation's highest civilian honor on erstwhile political nemesis and presidential rival Bob Dole.
But no sooner did Clinton drape the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Dole's neck than the flinty Kansas Republican infused the solemn White House ceremony with his trademark irreverence.
"I had a dream that I would be, this historical week, receiving something from the president," Dole, 73, deadpanned before a crowd that included several of his Senate colleagues and the soldier who saved him during World War II. "But I thought it would be the front door key."
Although Dole was visibly moved by the ceremony, he seemed determined to disrupt the utter seriousness of the occasion with references to last fall's campaign.
As he took the podium, Dole said with a straight face: "I, Robert J. Dole." Then, as Clinton and the audience erupted into laughter, Dole broke into a mischievous smile and continued: "Do solemnly swear. Uh, wrong speech."
Dole's jests were a marked counterpoint to what was an intense and at times bitter election campaign. But as soon as the election was over, according to White House spokesman Mike McCurry, Clinton began searching for ways to pay tribute to Dole for his lengthy public service, which included serving eight years in the House and 28 in the Senate.
Clinton eloquently praised the Kansan for turning "adversity to advantage and pain to public service" by fighting his way back to health after suffering grave wounds on a battlefield in Italy and becoming one of the nation's most prominent politicians.
"Son of the soil, citizen, soldier and legislator, Bob Dole understands the American people, their struggles, their triumphs and their dreams," Clinton said.
"Our country is better for his courage, his determination and his willingness to go the long course to lead America."
After getting his jokes out of the way, Dole became sober and gracious, thanking the president and reflecting on his rich past.
"At every stage of my life, I've been a witness to the greatness of this country," Dole said. "I have seen this nation overcome Depression and segregation and communism, turning back mortal threats to human freedom. And I have stood in awe of American courage and decency, a virtue so rare in history and so common in this precious place."
Dole was majority leader when he left the Senate last spring to devote full attention to his race for the presidency.
The man who replaced Dole as Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), called the ceremony "a class act."
It is "one of the many things that need to happen to get us thinking in the right way," he said after the event. But indicating that there are still choppy waters ahead, Lott added that, to date, Clinton has failed to back up his speeches about bipartisanship with bipartisan actions.
"On the substance of the legislative proposals, we haven't seen a lot yet," Lott said. Political analysts who specialize in the presidency were at a loss to cite a similar honor bestowed by a president on the man he had defeated.
"It's good for the country when we demonstrate that after our rough-and-tumble elections we can come together and we don't demonize the person who lost," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "Clinton is doing everything he can to be magnanimous and--by dint of his public actions--to draw the Republicans into governing with him."
Even conservatives praised the president's effort to smooth relations in Washington.
"It's one of the kinds of things that has made Clinton such a political success," said David Mason, a senior political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "I don't know that it will have a direct effect in making Republicans turn around and say: 'This is a nice guy after all.'
"But it could strengthen his popularity and people's feeling that he's someone who's reasonable and centrist," Mason said. "That strength will translate into a greater need on behalf of House and Senate Republicans to deal with him."
Clinton has taken other steps recently to reach out to Republicans. Earlier this week, Clinton appealed to Congress to move quickly to end the protracted ethics case involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He also has nominated a Republican, former Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), to be his next Defense secretary.
Such moves may be good politics. With Republicans retaining control of Congress, Clinton must work with them if he hopes to win passage of his legislative proposals.