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Citizen Clinton honours his hero in symbolic visit

WASHINGTON - As his top aides struggled to complete key sub-cabinet-level appointments, Bill Clinton yesterday paid a private, but hugely symbolic pre-inauguration visit to the graves of John and Robert Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery overlooking a city poised to enthrone him today as the 42nd US president, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The moment was solemn and subdued. Accompanied by 20 members of the Kennedy family, including Senator Edward Kennedy and Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel, Mr and Mrs Clinton laid white roses on the grave of President Kennedy. Then with head bowed, he knelt beside the eternal flame of the man who was his boyhood idol.

The ceremony was a rare quiet interlude in the president-elect's final day as a private citizen. Mr Clinton then returned to Blair House - where he is staying - across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. As he moved from function to function, including a lunch with state governors and culminating in a celebratory gala last night studded with the cream of Hollywood, his spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, said that more than 110 sub-cabinet officials were 'ready to go'.

Rebutting criticism that the transition had been too slow, Mr Stephanopoulos declared that the incoming administration would be 'ready on Day One to take over the government'. However, such has been Mr Clinton's sloth in finalising appointments that, for the time being, top-level Republicans will stay on, most notably those handling foreign crisis spots such as Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

Later, in another groundbreaking gesture, the president-elect addressed a lunch of 150 past and present governors in the Library of Congress, seeking their help to press forward with the domestic agenda - notably deficit reduction, health care and educational reform - which is his top priority.

The goal, he said, was 'to re-invent our national government'. Promising unprecedentedly close co-operation with the men who run the daily affairs of America's 50 states, Mr Clinton demanded that Congress pass this year - 'I repeat, this year' - legislation to curb health costs and phase in cover for the 37 million Americans without health insurance.

Once in the White House, the president-elect pledged, he would welcome constructive criticism from all quarters, including Republican governors who had opposed him during the campaign. 'Please know the door is open. When you think we're going very, very wrong - walk through it and say so,' he said.