Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to a quake-damaged South-Central elementary school began with great pomp Thursday as students lined up in descending order of height to properly greet the First Lady. It ended in a little huddle of humanity as the children wrapped themselves affectionately around her, not wanting to let go.
"Can I hug you?" a little boy shyly inquired at one point and the First Lady gladly obliged, juggling a bundle of stories the children had written for her and letting them know that even now, 10 days after the devastating quake knocked them from their beds, the White House was still watching.
Before she left town Thursday, Mrs. Clinton would also visit a quake-ravaged street in Hollywood and attend Commitment to Life VII, an entertainment industry fund-raiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles.
But nowhere would she leave a more indelible mark than at Hyde Park Elementary School, where terrified children, holding puppets made from socks for her visit, were trying to comprehend this seismic disaster.
Perched on a pint-size orange chair in an upstairs classroom, Mrs. Clinton chatted with her audience of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, somehow managing to find just the right words of condolence, no matter how terrible the tale.
"My mom, she kept on screaming, she was keeping on crying and screaming," said a bewildered little boy named Craig.
"It sounds to me like you took really good care of your mom. You did a good job that night," she assured him.
"Now sometimes I would be afraid to go to sleep because I think another one is coming," little Antonio confided.
"I can't imagine not being scared," the First Lady replied.
"The door was shutting open and closed, and it was scary," a little girl named Delia said.
"It sounds as though your mother and father knew just what to do," Mrs. Clinton said.
They wanted to know if she felt the earthquake in Washington. (They also wanted to know if she liked being a lawyer.) She drew a map of the United States on the blackboard and explained that she was "all the way over here" and did not feel the shaking, but that their stories had helped her understand.
"This is an experience they keep living over and over again," Clinton said after a meeting with district officials and social workers, the children still pressed all around her. "One of the things I have worried about ever since the earthquake hit was the impact on the children. . . . I'm told that 15,000 to 20,000 children still are not back in schools."
Then, in a makeshift dressing room next to the principal's office, she changed from a blue silk skirt and pumps to blue silk pants and flats and prepared to survey the quake damage that her husband had come to town to see only a few days before.
If his strategy was to reassure the devastated San Fernando Valley, hers was to soothe those in mostly verlooked Hollywood and South-Central.
After a motorcade bulldozed its way through cross-town traffic, Mrs. Clinton emerged onto the 6000 block of Selma Avenue, an oak-lined street of historic Craftsman homes now bent and leaning.
She could offer little more than a sympathetic ear and a soothing voice. But residents, some of whom hadn't had a hot shower in days, seemed comforted by her presence. Raymond O'Keefe, an actor, led her to his back-yard patio where two pup tents were pitched. "This is where we live now," he said blankly as two tiny white dogs yapped at the First Lady.
"Thanks, I wanted to see this firsthand," she said, shaking her head sympathetically.
When another man went on in great detail about bolts and drills and shoring up foundations, she listened raptly.
After the First Lady had gone, 78-year-old Anna Perrine was still without hot water. The house where she had lived since 1933 was still uninhabitable. But she was smiling broadly, perhaps for the first time in days. "She was exquisite. She was warm and understanding," Perrine said, watching Mrs. Clinton pull away.
At the fund-raiser at the Universal Amphitheatre, Mrs. Clinton and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, received Commitment to Life awards for their work in the fight against AIDS.
Entertainment industry mogul David Geffen escorted Mrs. Clinton to the fund-raiser, where she watched a host of entertainers perform songs and recite tributes to AIDS patients. The event raised $5 million from ticket sales and corporate contributions, organizers said.