WASHINGTON — He's a knowledgeable guy, this soon-to-be-ex-president. Capable of holding forth on history, on sports, on the fine points of tax policy. On Saturday, in the waning days of his administration, President Clinton developed yet one more area of expertise:
"They eat 40 pounds a day," Clinton informed a throng of reporters as he emerged from the National Zoo's panda house. "They have a more efficient elimination system than we do . . . . They take whatever nutrients they need and eliminate the rest. It's not like if we consumed 40 pounds a day. We'd be obese."
The outgoing chief executive paid a visit Saturday to the new stars in town--female Mei Xiang and male Tian Tian, the giant pandas on loan to the zoo from China for the next 10 years.
The pandas, which have been given a month to acclimate to their new homes, won't go on public display until Wednesday. But a special tour was arranged for the president, along with his daughter, Chelsea, and two young nephews.
Clinton peppered the zoo's director, Lucy Spellman, with questions about panda life as the group viewed them through glass enclosures. "How old are they when they reach full size? . . . Will you try to breed them?"
Tian Tian struck a languorous pose against a rock formation, head back, face grazing bamboo leaves, gnawing dreamily on a carrot.
"Look at him!" the president said. "He's so cute!"
The two pandas showed off some more, joining forces to pull down a huge branch, then methodically chewing away.
"This is what they do," Spellman said. "They just inhale their food."
"They wolf it down, don't they?" Clinton said.
Clinton and his party were then escorted into a private area granting them up-close access to the pandas. Warnings were issued to the president's nephews, 5-year-old Zach Rodham and 6-year-old Tyler Clinton, not to put their fingers into the cage.
The president emerged into sunlight a few minutes later, a new expert.
"They have long claws and very big teeth," he told reporters, sounding like a credible narrator for the Discovery Channel. "The interesting thing about pandas is they have a grip."