WASHINGTON (AP) _ A little mud notwithstanding, President Clinton gave the Olympic flame a proper, pomp-filled White House send-off today and pointed it south to Georgia.

The soggy South Lawn was no deterrent to cheering local torch-bearers, Olympic athletes and foreign ambassadors who gathered to bid the torch farewell to the strains of herald trumpets arrayed on the White House balcony.

Clinton got ahold of the torch for just an instant, passing it from torch-bearer Lang Brown, who works with local homeless teen-agers, to the next runner, Carla McGhee, who overcame serious injuries from a car accident to join the U.S. women's basketball team for the Olympics.

The president used the moment to put in an appeal for national unity, saying every American must summon the Olympic spirit ``to embrace those things that bind us together, never to succumb to those things that would keep us apart.''

In an apparent allusion to the rash of arson fires at black churches around the country, Clinton added: ``In the last several months, we have had to deal with some different kinds of flames, but it is this flame that represents the best of the United States of America.''

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It was a nice thought anyway.

The Olympic flame was to have burned all night on the White House lawn following Thursday's presidential arrival ceremony.

But minutes after the ceremony ended Thursday night, the skies opened. At the end of a short but intense rainburst, the torch was out _ but not the ``mother flame,'' which was stored safely indoors.

Michelle Timmerman strolled past the White House lawn about midnight hoping to see the flame and was a bit disappointed.

``This was about the only opportunity I would get to see it,'' said Timmerman, visiting Washington from Fort Wayne, Ind.

But she and her friends also saw some humor.

``Despite the lack of a flame, I find the body of the torch motivating,'' quipped Paul DiCamillo of Potomac, Md.

There was little concern that the Olympic flame would not make it to Atlanta. The ``mother flame,'' used to light the individual torches each morning, was stowed safely in a Washington hotel, guarded by the Georgia State Patrol.

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Earlier Thursday evening, the scene was picture perfect: the White House against a black sky framing the ornate cauldron that would hold the Olympic flame.

Everyone even seemed dressed for the occasion, with the first and second couples wearing bright-but-solid colors that wouldn't clash with one other in photos. A majestic fountain cascaded water just a few feet back.

But when the Olympic flame finally arrived onto the platform, Clinton stayed hidden behind the cauldron as he helped torch runner I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, light the base.

This prompted photographers, the only audience for the show, to yell, ``Mr. President, we can't see you!''

Eventually, Vice President Al Gore heard them and prompted the president to move in front, where he smiled wide for the cameras.

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As Jordan stood on the presidential platform, he raised his hand with his pinky, forefinger and thumb pointed up, a sign language symbol for ``I love you.''

To the uninitiated though, his gesture may have looked a lot like those childhood rabbit ears, and his hand was stationed just behind the president's head as cameras clicked.

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The nation's jogger-in-chief didn't carry the torch himself. It turns out that's against policy: No politicians allowed.

``Unfortunately, that applies to everyone,'' said Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the force behind bringing the games to Atlanta.

But Payne, who said he's only met up with the torch a few times on its relay, promised that the president was not being overlooked.

``He will play a very important role,'' he said.

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Torchbearer Martin Begosh, 24, carried the torch to the White House grounds, one of 10,000 people to carry the flame across the country.

Nominated through a contest by sponsor Coca-Cola, Begosh was the first U.S. soldier injured when the peacekeeping mission was sent to Bosnia last fall.

``It wasn't worth getting blown up, but its pretty cool,'' said Begosh, who carried the torch in a wheelchair pushed by his father.