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September 16, 2000
I felt the Mahatma walking towards me: Clinton
Savera R Someshwar in Washington DC
He came, he saw and he most definitely conquered.
At a function organised on Saturday morning to dedicate a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, US President Bill Clinton once again demonstrated the reason for his popularity.
Arriving at the Indian embassy – the memorial statue is located opposite the embassy building -- at 10.45 am, Clinton was warmly greeted by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and India's ambassador to the United States, Naresh Chandra.
Clinton and Vajpayee then moved towards the now-unveiled statue and -- like he did at the White House on Friday -- the younger leader once again placed a solicitous hand on Vajpayee's elbow.
He then charmed the two little girls – 10-year-old Prerna Chowdhury and nine-year-old Nooreen Sarna (daughter of press consular at the embassy, Navtej Sarna) – standing by with the ceremonial scissors and rose petals.
Clinton held the white satin ribbon as Vajpayee cut it and formally dedicated the statue. The two leaders were seeing in animated conversation as they posed for pictures. They then moved around the statue, examining it from all angles and stopping to read the plaque, with Ambassador Chandra serving as their guide.
On the roof of the building opposite – formerly known as the Ritz Carlton Hotel – the security detail were constantly scanning the area.
The president, who appeared to be impressed with the statue, asked to meet its sculptor, Gautam Pal.
"He told me," said a visibly excited Pal, "that it was a magnificent statue, that when he was in front of it, he felt the Mahatma was walking towards him." Clinton made the 51-year-old sculptor's day by insisting on taking a picture with him.
After spending some more time admiring the statue, Clinton moved towards the 50-odd special invitees – sequestered behind a rope barricade to the left of the embassy – to meet them and shake hands, sending his security detail into a tizzy.
Says an embassy official who met him, "It was so unexpected. For a few seconds, we had no clue what was happening."
Another official added, "We were dumbstruck, none of us could think of anything to say to him, beyond quietly introducing ourselves."
Others ahead of them, though, had a little more time to make the most of this unexpected encounter. Eighty-seven-year-old Bishop James K Mathews, a former missionary in India, embraced the president. "I would not presume to call him a friend, but the president and I have known each other for the last 10 years. This has been a great day for me; it has been the fulfillment of a dream. I thanked him for doing a good job and told him I had been extremely supportive of his policy."
Clinton also insisted on taking a photograph with Suki Hendrix, a former citizen of Korea, who came to the United States over 10 years ago. After the president left, Suki was still dazed. "I never thought I would meet the president. Not ever," said Suki, somewhat incoherent with excitement. "I told the president I make drapery for sculpture. I never even asked for a picture. But he called for his photographer. I never expected it. It is a dream come true."
Suki and her husband had been been on the site since seven in the morning. "The statue's bald head is so slippery. And then, it was windy. My husband put the drapery. I never thought it would stay."
Spotted among the special invitees was Representative Frank Pallone, founder and former co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. The Gandhi memorial was the direct result of legislation moved by Pallone at Capitol Hill. It was ultimately approved by Congress and signed into law by Clinton.
The president then moved towards the media for an impromptu press conference, where, once again, he shook hands, answered questions for a few minutes and pronounced Vajpayee's visit a great success, before whizzing back to the White House.
rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news about this historic visit as it happens!
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