President Clinton rang out his most unusual of years in his usual, if peculiar, way: in very earnest policy discussion with more than a thousand acquaintances and fans _ and a few old friends and unimpressed strangers _ assembled at the annual Renaissance Weekend here.
For more than an hour as midnight approached on Thursday, the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton fielded questions selected by the event's organizers. In all the talk about Africa, Social Security and health care, impeachment and Monica Lewinsky went unmentioned. At midnight the president kissed his wife, then joined in a champagne toast and sang along to Auld Lang Syne.
To some guests, the Clintons appeared solemn, far less spirited and engaged than in the past. Indeed, after a year in which he admitted adultery before his family and the world, launched a military assault and became the second president ever impeached, Clinton seems in particular need of renaissance.
But if so, he did not seek it in the organized doings here. He spent more time on the golf course and with his Labrador retriever during his three days at this studious gathering, a kind of Big Chill retreat for Baby Boomers who didn't inhale. "This is sort of paradise if you're a C-Span junkie," enthused Bob Richardson, a Nobel Prize winner in physics.
Clinton did not attend any of the chin-stroking seminars that are a staple of the official fare. He passed up the half-day "academy" devoted to "Character: What is it? Does is it count?" He also skipped "My Family's Lessons for Life," "Spiritual Life in a Secular Society" and a session on the meaning of the 1998 elections.
In some seminars, Clinton's trying year was an unavoidable, if delicate, subject. "I don't think anyone here is quite so gauche as to directly address" Clinton's problems, said Walt Cunningham, the Apollo 7 astronaut and conservative radio talk show host, though he said the subject had been debated in a "genteel way."
Gentility is the reigning principle of this privileged, even precious conclave, and guests bemoan what they regard as the baffling failure of political discourse at large to mimic Renaissance Weekend's lonely model.
The throng here leans distinctly to the left, but there are some notable Republicans, including Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who voted for impeachment.
Clinton gave the same impression, appearing as cheerful and confident in public as ever. But those who spent private time with him here described him as clearly in need of recreation and preoccupied with maneuvering in the Senate over his upcoming trial.
Aside from a question-and-answer session Thursday evening, followed by the banquet and exchange later that night, Clinton did not attend any Renaissance Weekend events. On Friday, he spent more than four hours on the golf course _ on top of almost six on Thursday. With their daughter, Chelsea, the Clintons flew back to Washington late Friday.