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A punishment fit for a president _ remodeling

I think I understand why President Clinton is fighting to hang on to his job. Clinton has spent most of his adult years living in government housing, avoiding the responsibility of home ownership. This man is no fool. Being governor of Arkansas or president of the United States means never having to call a plumber or to deal with roofing contractors. A president does not have to beg the gas company to sell him gas or listen to excuses about why the delivery date for furniture and draperies ordered months ago keeps getting pushed back. The White House is splendidly furnished, and the president's staff doesn't bother him with such trivial things as a broken water pipe or a leaky roof.

His day is coming, however. In two years, he will have to evacuate the White House and buy or rent a house in whatever city or rural backwater he chooses for his residence. That's the day Bill Clinton will understand that there are some things more nerve-wracking than having a special prosecutor poking around in your sex life. If he thinks impeachment is a pain, let him try living through a year of home repair problems and improvement projects, as I have just done. The delays and disruptions, the broken promises and outright lies, the expense and the stress have taken their toll on me. My normal teddy bear disposition turned cranky. My sleep became fitful. I was unable to muster much Christmas spirit. There were a few times when I wished I were a lawyer, the better to haul contractors into court to make them pay for the inconveniences they inflicted on me.

My ordeal started on the first day of 1998. With a house full of guests, we had a water nightmare. The main waterline to the house ruptured, and the patio flooded. To find the break, the plumbers had to rip up a large chunk of the patio and smash through concrete. Without water pressure, our guests found themselves living in Third World conditions, unable to take a shower or flush toilets for 24 hours.

A few months later there was a jarring boom that shook the house. Lightning scored a direct hit on one of our chimneys, scattering bricks across the roof and in the yard and filling the dining room with soot. The dog was terrified, and since then he refuses to leave the house if he hears even a distant rumble of thunder.

By the spring, I had to put a new roof on the house. I probably made the mistake of going with the low bid. A roofing job that the salesman swore would take no more than eight to 10 days ended up taking more than a month. A crew of a half dozen showed up one morning to rip off the old roof, but the job of putting on a new roof was assigned to a lone roofer. Fortunately, he finished his work before the drought ended.

I had barely recovered from the roofing ordeal when my wife started talking about how much she hated the wallpaper in the kitchen. The next thing I know, she has signed a contract for a new kitchen. She figured since the wallpaper had to go, the rest of the kitchen might as well follow it out the door. The work began in early October. As Thanksgiving approached, the contractor assured us we would be able to cook our holiday turkey in our new oven, even though the counter tops had not arrived and the plumbing was not connected. In fairness to him, these were not problems of his making. He kept his word and did his job.

When Thanksgiving Day arrived, the kitchen was not ready, so we decided to take our house guests to a local hotel dining room for dinner. It was as good a feast as I ever had, and when we asked for the check, the waiter told us it had been taken care of _ by our kitchen contractor. He felt so terrible about the kitchen not being ready, he called to ask what our Thanksgiving plans were and then drove from Safety Harbor to downtown St. Petersburg to arrange for the restaurant to charge our dinner to his credit card. That was beyond the call of duty, and I consider him a prince among kitchen contractors.

By early December, the kitchen was complete except for one small detail _ there still was no gas hookup, even though we had been working on that for weeks. We quickly discovered that the gas company is not interested in new customers. A natural gas line is half a block away, but it might as well have been in Tallahassee. The gas company said it could not economically justify extending the line to our house. Fair enough. We found a propane company in another city that was glad to sell us gas by the tank. Finally, on New Year's Eve, we celebrated our gas connection. That meant we could cook on a kitchen range for the first time in three months. And it meant we would have gas fireplace logs to knock the chill off the house as the season's first real cold snap hit. If there was ever an occasion that called for the uncorking of champagne, this was it.

As the new year begins, there is nothing to do but wait for the painters to finish their work inside the house and pray that the draperies arrive before the Y2K problem causes the order to disappear from the vendor's computer. Bill Clinton's impeachment ordeal will soon be over, one way or the other. Forget about removing him from office or censure. If Congress really wants to punish this president for his sins, it should force him to spend the next two years remodeling the White House.