If it's Wednesday, this must be Cartagena.
President Clinton may a lame duck, but that does not mean he is limping off the political stage. Instead, like a bee sensing the approach of winter, he's buzzing around furiously, trying to make the most of his last moments in the sun.
Last week, he embarked on what was supposed to be a brief visit to Nigeria. Right before he left, the White House added a little side-trip to Tanzania (a mere five hours' flight farther east) to help out good friend Nelson Mandela with the tricky Burundian peace talks. In mid-journey it announced that on the way back he'd pop in on Cairo, Egypt, for some consultations with President Mubarak about the Middle East peace talks.
So after their pow-wow at the airport, and a 12-hour flight back, Clinton returned to the White House at about 2 p.m. Tuesday just in time to get in a quick round of golf under a late-summer drizzle. Then it was back to Andrews Air Force base at 7 a.m. Wednesday for a day trip to Cartagena, Colombia (nine hours in the air, nine hours on the ground). The grueling schedule left some of the aides who took both trips, like National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and chief of staff John Podesta, noticeably dragging as they traipsed along with the official delegation. In a concession to those who haven't had time to do laundry and to the steamy coastal heat of Cartagena Clinton declared a Casual Wednesday and boarded Air Force One without a tie.
Clinton went south to meet with President Andres Pastrana and formally launch a controversial $1.3 billion military aid package to help the Colombian government battle an unholy alliance of drug lords and Marxist guerrillas. As a welcoming gesture, the rebels bombed three banks in Cali and blew up a section of coastal highway the day before Clinton arrived, while students protesting the US aid occupied a building in the capital, Bogota. Most of the violence in the country where the murder rate is said to be higher than the auto theft rate is far from the relatively tranquil resort town of Cartagena, U.S. officials said reassuringly. But you can never been too careful in a country overrun by narcoterrorists: Colombia deployed 5,000 soldiers and police to protect the presidents, assisted by some 200-400 American security agents. A good thing, too at just about the time Clinton was landing they discovered and seized explosive materials at a house owned by rebel sympathizers about six blocks from a building where Clinton was scheduled to stop.
Besides Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, and anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey, Clinton brought along a gaggle of Congressmen, both Republicans and Democrats, to help bolster support for the program. The most notable is one of the president's chief antagonists on Capitol Hill Dennis Hastert, the Republican House Speaker. Head of a drug sub-committee, Hastert has been to Colombia half a dozen times and was instrumental in passing the aid package. Clinton probably used the time to do some bonding in advance of doing his bit for Al Gore's campaign by vetoing Republican legislation. Says a White House aide, "No doubt the president will take the opportunity to try to talk to him about working together on some things this fall."
Soon after he arrived, Clinton got some direct evidence of the deadly consequences of the two wars raging in this country, drugs and rebels. At the port, where he saw how Colombians detect and seize illegal drugs carried on speedboats or hidden inside industrial machinery, he met the widows and mothers of 12 military men and police officers slain in the line of duty. One of them broke down and sobbed emotionally as she told the president how her husband had been captured and tortured by rebels before he was killed. "You must help us," she sobbed. "I came to help," Clinton replied. As another woman broke down while telling her story, Clinton, ever the Great Empathizer, wiped the tears that were pouring copiously down her face.
Clinton also met with a drug sniffing dog, and in the process revealed a little-known presidential sleeping habit. The dog, whose name was "Darling," had recently sniffed out some heroin in the tennis shoes of a tourist on a cruise ship. Clinton petted the dog, who seemed quite taken with POTUS. In surmising why the pooch seemed so affectionate, Clinton dropped his little nugget: "Buddy slept with me last night. He probably smells Buddy." No details were available about the president's morning shower.
After a meeting between the large US delegation and the Colombian cabinet, Clinton and Pastrana held a press conference amid the tropical splendor of the government guest house gardens. Clinton defended the assistance program against both U.S. and Latin American critics: "This is not Vietnam, this is not Yankee imperialism," he declared.
Then it was off to a visit to a legal-aid center, a quick walkabout among the people, then back on Air Force One for a scheduled 1 a.m. arrival in Washington. Next up, vetoing a Republican tax cut, spending Labor Day weekend in upstate New York, new home to a certain Senatorial candidate, then another set of meetings with more foreign leaders next week.
The good news for the staff that is wearying of this frenetic pace: blessedly, these meetings are in New York.