Washington -- President Clinton, in a move that prompted smiles and quips from even his most loyal aides, yesterday gave up french fries -- and every other food group -- for the day.
The cause was a noble one: Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined about 20 members of Congress in a daylong fast to draw attention to problem of world hunger.
But if this turned into anything drastic, like, say, a diet, it would rob the nation's humorists of their most dependable laugh lines, namely Mr. Clinton's robust love of junk food.
The gags began during the campaign, and despite Mr. Clinton's addiction to jogging and his honest pace while doing so, it is his addiction to fast food that has captured the popular imagination.
"Saturday Night Live" popularized the image of a gluttonous Mr. Clinton, played by Phil Hartman, who, still in his jogging suit, stops by a local McDonald's where he greets potential voters -- and then grabs the food off their trays, stuffing pastries, cheeseburgers and Egg McMuffins into his mouth.
Often these spoofs come from Clinton's most unabashed fans.
In 1992, Rolling Stone magazine editor Jann S. Wenner accompanied a team of his most famous writers to Little Rock, where they wrote admiringly of then-Governor Clinton. All except for the incorrigible Hunter S. Thompson.
Perhaps because the interview took place in a local restaurant, perhaps because he was in a mood to recapture past glory, Mr. Thompson's story took an unexpected turn. Recalling an incident in which a Doe's restaurant patron handed Clinton a saxophone reed, Mr. Thompson suddenly veered off from fact to fancy.
"No more music," he [Clinton] said firmly. "Let's have some food. I'm hungry." Then he grasped the wicker basket of French fries with both hands and buried his face in it, making soft snorting sounds as he rooted around in the basket trying vainly to finish it off.
I was afraid, but Jann was quick to recover. "Easy, Governor, easy," he said in a suave voice. "Let me help you with that, Bill. Hell, we're all hungry." He smiled and reached for the half-empty basket of fries, as if to share the burden -- but Clinton snatched it away, clutching it to his chest and turning his back on us -- a horrible thing to see."
This piece was faxed from one young Clintonite to another, several of whom dissolved in tears of laughter while reading it.
But was it really any more absurd than the president, during a recent trip to Columbus, wolfing down his second lunch of the day, and with his mouth full of food, telling reporters -- without a trace of irony -- that he needs to lose 10 pounds?
"I can't, if I eat the same way," he said merrily.
Mr. Clinton is not a man whose first impulse is to laugh at himself. But for some reason, he seems capable of going with the flow on this subject. Could it be that a person who admits to screaming "SOOOEY! SOOEY!" at the top of his lungs while rooting for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks (this is called "calling the hogs") is above shame?
In fact, the president has been known to make porky jokes at the expense of other accomplished trenchermen, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who reportedly once asked the president where the nearest "Big and Tall" men's shop was.
That's not true, but this is: While in Europe for his NATO summit, Mr. Clinton stayed up late one night watching sumo wrestlers on his Belgian cable TV and then the next day needled Mr. Kohl about it.
"I was thinking of you last night, Helmut, because I watched the sumo wrestling on television," said the Leader of the Free World. "You and I are the biggest people here, and we're still 100 pounds too light!"
While other leaders held their breath nervously, Mr. Kohl strained to understand the translation. He looked quizzically for a second at Mr. Clinton, then roared with laughter.
Maybe Al Gore felt sorry for Mr. Kohl. Anyway, the Veep got Mr. Clinton back the other night at Washington's annual Gridiron dinner, at which the press gently roasts the president and other public officials.
With the audience on the edge of its seat -- only figuratively -- Mr. Gore told of waiting all his life for the immortal words that the president asks when they have lunch.
"Are you going to finish that?"