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Finns cater to needs of Clinton in wheelchair

It was not the scene a political image-master would devise, as President Clinton's chief spokesman Mike McCurry acknowledged.

But it was an image that is likely to last in the pop memory of the Clinton presidency.

The red carpet was laid out on the tarmac, and Air Force One rolled to a stately stop, just as it always does.

After presidential aides and Secret Service men strode off the plane, however, a new quirk diverted the arrival ceremony: a blue-and-white tractor with the words "Finnair Catering" made a gingerly approach.

It took two tries, but finally the catering lift extended its cargo compartment to the level of the converted Boeing 747's front exit door.

Finally the doors opened and Clinton emerged, seated in a wheelchair and followed by a security agent carrying a pair of crutches.

The caterers slowly delivered their delicate consignment to the ground, and a white van specially equipped to accommodate wheelchairs whisked away the president. The White House had flown the van from the United States to Finland in a rush operation after the president's knee injury six days ago.

"My knee and I are getting around pretty well," Clinton told reporters after an afternoon of rest, as he began his formal duties by greeting Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

McCurry joked that Clinton, worried about gaining weight for the six weeks or more he won't be permitted to exercise as normal, did not poke around the catering truck for food. But he said Clinton's diet is "pretty lean cuisine."

With Clinton periodically massaging his immobilized leg, and President Boris Yeltsin recuperating from a quintuple heart bypass, the presidents of United States and Russia began what they called the "Summit of Invalids," joking about Clinton riding around in "Wheelchair One."

Clinton, 50, wanted to stand tall with Yeltsin, 66, who gently tweaked Clinton for being the less physically fit one. But doctors advised Clinton not to stand, saying it was too early after his surgery.

McCurry said of Yeltsin, "I think he is a little ashen-faced. But he was certainly engaged in the conversation with Clinton and commenting, and very focused on things. I would say not as vibrant I've seen him in the past, but certainly fully engaged with Clinton."

Yeltsin's spokesman said the men traded jokes when they met at dinner about their precarious states of health _ the Russian leader is also recuperating from pneumonia. Clinton's spokesman noted that both barely touched the three kinds of wine served by Ahtisaari, a departure from past summits, apparently out of deference to their conditions.

Some of the victuals were a bit difficult to identify for the American crowd.

Goose consomme flavoured with ceps, for example. McCurry couldn't figure out what that meant until he looked at the Russian menu and found out that ceps were a type of mushroom.

As for the main meat dish _ gratinated saddle of reindeer fawn _ McCurry happily pronounced, "The baby reindeer was great."