Getting 'Eagle' to land


THE RALLY was winding down in Philadelphia's medieval city hall courtyard at 1:15 p.m. when a Secret Service agent whispered the words agents dread to hear.

"Eagle is moving out front," said the agent into a hand mike, using the code name for Bill Clinton.

The alert meant Bill Clinton, despite recent White House gunfire, extraordinary security and nervous advice to be careful, was doing what presidential bodyguards fear most -- wading into the noisy chaos of an unknown mob.

Even Rush Limbaugh and Clinton-haters of the world who pile slurs on the man's character can't deny one item: No modern president is braver -- more reckless, really -- about exposing himself to danger in the political arena.

After all, this was 48 hours after a kook stuck a Chinese assault rifle through the fence and tried to riddle the White House into Swiss cheese.

And a month since another fruitcake crash-landed a light airplane almost in the Clintons' bedroom.

I mean, the prez was safer in the Middle East caldron than his own house.

Well, forget predictions that Bill Clinton will no longer jog the streets or press the flesh in public.

In truth, except for Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Clinton is the most natural, high-spirited street campaigner of post-war presidents. Working a crowd gives him an adrenalin rush.

That same exuberance is propelling Mr. Clinton on an eight-day national spin to save his troubled party -- Philly was stop No. 1 -- when most Democratic candidates supposedly welcome him like flu epidemic.

Jet-lagged but pumped by his Middle East adventure, Mr. Clinton was on Air Force One heading home when he said to a top aide, "By the way, when do we go to Pennsylvania?"

"Uh, Mr. President, we'll get on that right away."

Even Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, hands full with challenger Rep. Rick Santorum, was surprised by the sudden presidential drop-in.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Wofford in a radio debate repeatedly ducked the controversy over a Clinton visit: "I haven't decided."

Mr. Wofford admitted he didn't want the race twisted into a Santorum vs. Clinton matchup.

He had reason to be wary.

An early October poll showed only three of 10 Pennsylvanians regarded Bill Clinton positively -- tepid popularity that could shatter the Democrats' coalition of independents, labor unionists and blacks that propelled for Mr. Wofford and Mr. Clinton to victory.

Sure, nationally Bill Clinton's ratings are up to 48 percent. But Pennsylvanians are still cool. A new statewide poll by Millersville University's Terry Madonna will show his foreign triumphs have lifted his popularity "marginally."

"Clinton's visit won't hurt or help us in polls either way," said Wofford campaign manager Pat Ewing. "What he does is energize the party, excite people, help with turnout."

Never mind the doubts -- Eagle was landing.

Security around Mr. Clinton was the tightest I can remember for a presidential visit, possibly excepting an early '70s trip by Richard Nixon when anti-war protesters were blocked from the scene.

Metal detectors checked 600 ticket-holding invitees in the city hall courtyard. Another 2,000 celebrity-seekers outside were kept block away by police lines.

In defiant bravado, every Philadelphia-area politician above rank of dogcatcher gathered onstage behind Bill Clinton. Even Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, whose cliffhanger budget vote for Mr. Clinton put her re-election in deep peril, spoke. She talked so fast, she could have sent a telegram.

Bill Clinton, fatigued and slightly hoarse from his overseas odyssey, tried his best to rouse the lunch-time crowd's torpor. He thundered the Democrats' (and Mr. Wofford's) TV ad line -- "say no to radical attacks on Social Security."

He insisted the United States was doing fine at home and abroad: "All we have to do is believe in ourselves."

If cheers were perfunctory, the six-deep crowd that shoved and yelled to shake Mr. Clinton's hand was enthusiastic.

These were the faithful, white and black, who must gin up votes Tuesday if the Democrats are to hold on to the Senate.

Grinning, happily relentless, Bill Clinton worked the line for 20 minutes. I thought jittery agents would need a derrick to hoist him into his motorcade.

They proved they could protect the restless man they call Eagle from plane crashes and drive-by shootings at Philly's city hall fortress.

Too bad they can't defend the White House.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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