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President Clinton, venturing to Capitol Hill for the first time since a special counsel suggested his impeachment, today met an enthusiastic, cheering crowd as he presented the Congressional Gold Medal to South African President Nelson Mandela.

Shortly after congressional leaders indicated they want to move forward with impeachment proceedings, a huge crowd of congressmen and embassy officials in the Capital Rotunda gave Clinton a lengthy standing ovation.

And after the award presentation, it looked like old times for Clinton. For several minutes, he chatted with members of the crowd who wanted to shake his hand or get an autograph.

All told, it was a rare morning of good feelings on Capitol Hill, as leaders of both political parties joined to honor Mandela.

Clinton said Mandela had proved that apar-theid, the system of segregation that ruled South Africa for decades, is "a defeat of the mind, the heart and the spirit."

"Nelson Mandela left us with one last message: to tear down every last vestige of apartheid in our own minds," he said.

Mandela, frail and soft-spoken at the age of 80, said he's seeking to strengthen ties between America and South Africa.

"The award with which you honor me today is an expression of the common humanity that binds us, one person to another, nation to nation, and people of the north to people of the south," he said.

Mandela made no mention of the troubles besetting Clinton. But on Tuesday, he made clear that he stands behind the president.

"Our morality does not allow us to desert our friends," Mandela said at a White House reception.

"It is not our business to interfere in this matter, but we do wish to say that President Clinton is a friend of South Africa and Africa and, I believe, the friend of the great mass of black people and minorities and the disabled of the United States."

Mandela, who endured 27 years in prison before emerging as the leader of a new multiracial South Africa, has made reconciliation the focal point of his trip to America.

After receiving his medal, for example, he made a point of grabbing the hand of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a former segregationist, and thrusting it in the air in a symbol of unity. Thurmond smiled.

Clinton appeared awed to be in Mandela's presence. During the ceremony's benediction, he repeatedly rubbed his teary eyes.

Congress voted in July to make Mandela the 100th recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. Previous recipients include George Washington, Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa.

Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning, sponsored the legislation and pushed it toward passage. Houghton's bill says Mandela deserves the honor because he "dedicated his entire life to the abolition of apartheid . . . and sacrificed his own personal freedom for the good of everyone."

Houghton was master of ceremonies for today's event.

"Nelson Mandela is one of the most extraordinary leaders of this century," Houghton said. "This is a challenging time in our history, when we're wrestling with our loyalties and our beliefs. And we're delighted that you are here, sharing your special powers of reconciliation."

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the New York Republican who pushed the Mandela legislation through the Senate, joined in praising Mandela.

"You served as a true inspiration -- one that we desperately need today," D'Amato said.

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