Elvis Leaves the Stage. Finally.

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MONROE, MICH. — President Clinton may have left Hollywood early Tuesday morning, but he arrived here to a scene orchestrated with all the panache only a seasoned show-biz operation like his White House could muster. They found a place in the heartland populated by blue-collar "working families" — this town of 23,000 next to Lake Erie is home to Monroe shock absorbers and a Ford parts plant — with a picturesque town square. The backdrop was a City Hall that could have been shipped in from Central Properties (with a church off the right), and organizers rounded up some 10,000 people who sweated, and in some cases fainted, in the steamy midwestern heat. Although it's the biggest crowd Gore has had in days, his staff has to wonder: Were they here for Al, or for Elvis?

The tableau was arranged so the cameras got a long, steady shot of the Clintons and the Gores walking together down the City Hall steps, across the lawn, and up along an unusually wide stage. The President, accused of hogging the limelight in L.A., spoke for only six minutes, but made his point. Calling Gore "my partner and friend for the past eight years," Clinton told the cheering throng, "He is the right person to be the first president of the 21st century."

Gore, doffing his suit coat to reveal yet another sweat-soaked white shirt, his campaign uniform lately, began the symbolic handoff. (Alas, no batons or torches.) First he looked back, thanking Clinton for helping build a strong economy and a strong foundation. Then he swung forward: "The question in this election is whether we erode that foundation, or build on it." He recited some of his standard campaign promises, but also showed some flashes of wit that prove he may have learned a thing or two from The Master. Referring to the Republicans' charge at their convention that the Clinton-Gore administration had taken the path of least resistance, Gore alluded to the government shutdowns and other battles waged in Washington, then quipped, "I wish there had been less resistance, we would have gotten to a strong economy even faster."

As Gore wound up his speech, with Clinton, Hillary and Tipper standing beaming behind him, a question rippled through the press corps: Would Clinton really leave? Would a man who loves more than anything else plunging into rope lines resist the urge to do it one more time? We watched in anticipation as Al kissed Tipper, hugged Clinton, hugged Hillary, Hillary hugged Tipper, Tipper hugged Bill. Bill and Hillary and Chelsea (who popped up to the stage at the last minute) then stood together and waved bye-bye to Al and Tipper, who stood near the lectern. Then the three Clintons turned and — yesss! — bypassed the stairs down to the crowd and strolled off hand in hand back along the ramp and disappeared into City Hall. The crowd roared, Al gave a (too heartfelt?) cheer, then he and Tipper plunged down into the crowd to shake hands. On their own at last.

Of course, Clinton will be back in the news before you know it (in fact, after He Left the Building, his motorcade stopped at a McDonald's, where POTUS ordered a chicken sandwich, and vegetarian Chelsea had an ice-cream cone), and he'll be campaigning for Gore in the fall, but as symbolism, it doesn't get much better than this (although we were still hoping for a real torch). As an added touch to emphasize that the transition had been made, the White House press plane broke down this afternoon (Gore's press plane had earlier suffered mechanical woes). But Monroe offers two other pieces of symbolism for the pundits to ponder. One, it's the home of La-Z-Boy, a fitting place for Clinton to start his political retirement. The other is less propitious for Gore: It's also the birthplace of a man with a rather unenviable record in big battles: Gen. George Custer.