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Catering to Summitry, President Rolls With the Lunches

March 21, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HELSINKI, Finland — As Air Force One landed in this northern European capital Thursday, countless cameras were aimed at the hatch to capture the arrival of President Clinton.

But instead of a stairway, a white container--with the words "Finnair catering" printed across the side in large blue letters--pulled up beside the plane. After what seemed an excruciatingly long time, the container was lowered to the ground, the door opened, and out rolled Clinton in his wheelchair.

The unusual entry on the world stage was just one of the many opportunities Clinton had to "enjoy the realities of adjusting to summitry in a wheelchair," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said later.

The president and his staff strove to maintain a sense of humor about Clinton's condition and the sometimes humbling positions it puts him in.

The president "didn't try to pick through the catering truck to see what else was on board," McCurry joked.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin arrived a few hours later in a brand-new plane and walked nimbly down the stairs beside his wife, Naina.

Yeltsin, who underwent heart surgery in November and was believed to be close to death as recently as a month ago, appeared robust and confident as he shook hands energetically with dignitaries who greeted him at the airport.

The 66-year-old Yeltsin appeared delighted by the thought of projecting the image--for once--of being the healthier one of the two.

During an interview a few days before the summit, he quipped that "the healthy Yeltsin and the ill Clinton are coming."

Clinton plainly did not want to be seen as an invalid Thursday.

"My knee and I are getting around pretty well," he told reporters during a photo session with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari in the presidential palace, his right leg stretched out in front of him.

McCurry acknowledged that no "image meister" had planned Clinton's awkward airplane exit. But a member of the Finnish parliament said the host country could have helped eased the embarrassment.

Finnair "should have at least painted over [the catering sign]," said Risto Penttila, the member of parliament.

The president had boarded his plane at Andrews Air Force base in suburban Maryland on Wednesday night by container as well, but it was not marked and the process was much less striking in the dark than in Helsinki's brilliant winter sunshine.

Clinton was picked up at the Helsinki airport in a white Dodge van with tinted windows that was built to accommodate wheelchairs, instead of the armored limousine that usually transports the president at home and abroad.

White House spokesman Barry Toiv said the vehicle was "modified from its original state," but he would not say whether it was armored.

The vehicle, flown over separately, is one of two leased in Washington to transport the president while he is recovering.

Before the trip, Air Force One underwent some changes. Several doors were widened to accommodate the wheelchair, and a set of collapsible parallel bars was brought on board for the president's physical therapy.

During the flight, Clinton had what was believed to be the first physical therapy session aboard Air Force One. A surgeon and a physical therapist were added to Clinton's usual retinue.

McCurry made a point of saying that the president's condition and the inconveniences it has created for him and his staff have given Clinton new appreciation for those who suffer long-term disabilities.

"As he adjusts to the reality of moving around the White House and seeing what it's like to be confined to a wheelchair, he does have more sympathy for those who are challenged by that situation every day," McCurry said.

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