WASHINGTON — A national ideal--the orderly transfer of power--was tested Friday as two presidencies collided under a driving rain.
The capital divided into a bureaucratic split screen, as one faction worked to pull off America's quadrennial celebration while another struggled to run the business of the country without a noticeable hitch.
On the eve of his swearing in as the 43rd president, George W. Bush rationed his coveted presence at a string of events honoring his wife, the vice president-elect, all veterans and his party's youth.
Meanwhile, the presidency that was supposed to be winding down exploded in a blitz of business as President Clinton sealed a deal to avert an indictment, pay a $25,000 fine and surrender his law license for five years. He also lifted remaining economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and fired Linda Tripp, the saboteur of his second term.
All the while, the Senate continued to check out some of the most controversial members of the proposed Bush Cabinet, one of whom survived her questioning by pretending she was on a lake in Colorado.
And if all that wasn't enough, snow threatened to cancel today's parade.
"They're playing it by ear," an overwhelmed inaugural press aide muttered.
Rough Road to Transition Not New
It was vaguely reminiscent of transitions past. Jimmy Carter spent most of the car ride to his successor's swearing-in on the phone, desperately trying to get Iran to free 52 American hostages. George Bush ordered a cruise missile attack on an Iraqi nuclear installation 48 hours before Bill Clinton took the oath.
But bumpy transitions are to Washington what the Santa Ana winds are to Los Angeles: They happen with regularity and few remember the mess they leave.
There were about 9,000 additional cabs brought in to ferry an army of tourists in an unrelenting rain, and that still was not enough. "Every four years we rule this town," one cabby boasted while chauffeuring three people in two directions and jacking up the fare while he was at it.
The subways were jammed. The airport was overwhelmed by corporate jets that held at least one commercial flight on the tarmac for an hour.
The Capitol teemed with visitors, some of them picking up tickets from their congressional members for today's swearing in. Long lines formed at metal detectors and elevators. An impatient Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), on his way to a news conference, gave up and walked the eight flights, delivering his remarks out of breath.
The streets were dotted with fur coats and cowboy hats. So high was the demand for Stetson hats--imported from Texas at $200 each--that the Ritz Carlton had to reorder five times in three days. At Washington's Union Station, gloves sold out to tourists who underestimated the cold.
Some Bid Clinton a Not So Fond Farewell
Still nothing, not even the weather, seemed to dampen the partisan bliss as the yellow and white moving van sat at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"The proverbial 'truth is stranger than fiction' is more apropos here than almost any other time. There is a great sense of enthusiasm and relief over the fact that we are going through this transition," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "We are buoyed by the fact that we are going to finally bring an end to the Bill Clinton presidency."
But by all indications, the Clinton presidency wasn't going to waste a second of whatever power it had left to use.
After down-to-the-wire negotiations, Clinton agreed to terms that ended an independent counsel investigation into accusations that he lied under oath about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. "I hope my actions today will help bring closure and finality to these matters," he said in a statement released by the White House.
Asked Friday whether he was sad to have witnessed the last events of the Clinton presidency, Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) noted prophetically: "It may not be the last event. We still have a few hours."
Indeed, by day's end, the Clinton administration had fired Tripp--whose secret tape-recordings of Lewinsky led to the president's impeachment. She had refused to resign her Pentagon job, as is customary for political appointees.
Clinton also put out open letters to the Palestinians and the Israelis, issued a statement deploring land mines and clarified U.S. policy on the protection of sunken warships. And the White House buzzed with talk of late-night pardons.
His administration similarly rushed through an outbox of final business, including: how to deal with bacterial contamination of raw oysters.
"Yup. This is our busy season," one Food and Drug Administration official said.
Some of the Bush Cabinet nominees concluded their Senate confirmation hearings by midmorning Friday.
Gale A. Norton's vetting for Interior secretary had promised to be a knock-down partisan battle over her pro-business views of environmental preservation but turned into two days of shadow boxing between senators who found it in their interests to appear polite.