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Mr. President, the Bunny Is Here

In an Easter rite, it was egg-rolling, not logrolling on White House lawn

WHO was that in the Easter Bunny costume, anyway?

After all, it's not every day you see an Easter Bunny being escorted into the White House by a Secret Service agent. But then, this was no ordinary Easter Monday event.

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It was the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, when the South Lawn of the First Mansion becomes a sea of young families, and children learn the gentle art of pushing dyed hard-boiled eggs with a plastic spoon in a race for the finish line. With any luck, they don't wind up with egg salad. But, as the morning wore on, it became advisable to watch one's step.

Large costumed characters, including several Easter Bunnies and eggs, giant M&Ms, the Cat in the Hat, and - no joke - a Statue of Liberty Barbie, strolled the South Lawn, posing for photographs and working the crowds like good Washingtonians. With Congress out of town, the activity du jour was egg-rolling, not political log-rolling. It was enough to make a hard-boiled politician get all runny inside.

The sky was a brilliant blue and the air almost warm for this storied event, a tradition that dates back 187 years to the presidency of James Madison. But a poignancy hung over the proceedings, symbolized by the flag flying at half-mast over the White House.

In a city normally dominated by the news of ambitious adults, weighty budget decisions, and this past week, the deaths of Cabinet Secretary Ron Brown and his entourage of business and Commerce Department officials, the sight of all those children presented a vibrant tableau at a serious and somber time in Washington.

The kids themselves likely knew no more than that the president had made a big carnival for them in his back yard. Jane Biel, a pre-kindergarten student at a local elementary school, said her favorite part was "winning the egg roll."

Big brother Gus chimed in: "Yah, she took two big hits, and then she squished it!"

Evan Roe, a kindergartner, liked the goody bags that all children got as they left - jam-packed with candy and toys provided by the event's corporate sponsors. Evan's little sister, Rebecca, was excited to meet Itchy and Charlie, costumed characters from the movie "All Dogs Go to Heaven." Their mother was most amused to catch a glimpse of VIP chicken man Frank Perdue, a major sponsor of the event, in the East Wing of the White House.

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Another amusing scene came at the entrance, when senior administration officials - their immaculately dressed tots in tow - were told they could not cut to the front and must wait their turn like the rest of the public.

And what about the bunny with the Secret Service escort? The White House would not reveal if any of its officials attended the event in costume, a practice not unheard of in the past. President and Mrs. Clinton appeared as themselves at the start of the event, the president looking respectable in a dark suit and Easter-egg tie.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON presided as the official organizer of the event. It was one of her early predecessors, Dolley Madison, who came up with the idea, as the story goes, after she learned that Egyptian children rolled dyed eggs around the pyramids. Originally, Washington's Easter Egg Roll was held on the Capitol grounds, until members of Congress got tired of slipping on egg detritus and banished it.

Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, invited the roll to the South Lawn, where it has stayed. This year, the White House kitchen turned out 7,500 dyed eggs for rolling. Another 27,000 painted wooden eggs - complete with drawings of the White House and the Clintons' signatures - were handed out to kids as souvenirs.

Now, only one question remains: How will the White House groundskeepers get all those pink and purple egg shells out of the usually immaculate South Lawn?

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