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NATO Notebook

April 22, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ ``I saw his hair!″ Robert Denning, a high schooler from Connecticut, said after he saw President Clinton’s motorcade speed toward the White House for a meeting with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana.

``That was awesome,″ said his classmate, Nick Ogden.

As tourist attractions go, shiny black limousines had it all over museums on Thursday as the capital gussied itself up to welcome world leaders for NATO’s 50th anniversary. All day long, motorcades ferried dignitaries from more than 40 countries from airports to hotels to meetings.

When Denning and his friends from Country Day School in Greenwich, Conn., heard that Clinton’s motorcade was near, they took their chances. Instead of heading to another museum, they waited on a sidewalk.

Earlier in the day, they had seen a three-car VIP caravan. So when policemen on motorcycles, their sirens blaring, rounded a street corner, the students figured it was just another NATO diplomat.

``We never thought the president would come,″ Denning said. ``That was so cool.″

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NATO’s blue-and-white flag was prominently displayed at the Alamo Flags store down the street from where world leaders are staging their 50th anniversary summit. Price: $49.95. There were few takers.

Teen-age shoppers were more interested in Confederate flags, often a symbol of rebellion.

``It’s sad,″ said manager Mohammad Ismail.

A NATO organizing group snatched up all 144 tiny NATO flags in stock, he said, and he has sold a few of the larger ones during the past week or so. But even with thousands of dignitaries and members of the media in town for the summit, the large NATO banners aren’t exactly flying out the door.

``I’ve been here for nine years and I haven’t sold one in five years,″ Ismail said.

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Tight security for the NATO summit will force Hien Nguyen to close his T-shirt stand near the White House for three days. Blocked streets, no traffic. No traffic, no sales. No sales, no reason to arrange for the production of NATO souvenir shirts.

``It’s too late now. Even if we wanted them, it’s too late to order them,″ Nguyen said.

That hasn’t prevented Nguyen and other vendors along the street from spending spare time thinking up T-shirt slogans for NATO memorabilia they won’t be selling.

A shirt that says: ``Milosevic the Martyr″ for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic comes to mind, says Sadiq Safi, a Washington vendor for more than a decade. But he tactfully dismisses that idea for more diplomatic ones: ``The war is for peace in the region″ and ``Join the NATO for the stability and peace of the region.″

He’s on a roll. Drawing an imaginary circle on his tummy, Safi envisions a ring of flags from all 19 NATO countries and the message: ``NATO Keep the Peace.″

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Visiting NATO foreign leaders will get white-gloved treatment _ right down to the people who help them get out of their cars.

Six to eight members of military honor guards will be on hand every day to open the doors of limousines.

``We use military door openers for the motorcades. They wear white gloves and they’re trained,″ explained Maj. Craig Greene, who is helping plan ceremonies for the NATO anniversary gathering.

Trained to open car doors?

Apparently, the job is not as easy as it looks.

``There are security locks on the doors and so you have to be trained on how to open the doors,″ Greene said. ``It can be an awkward moment getting a leader out of the car.″