WASHINGTON - President Clinton paid final tribute Saturday to Charles Ruff, the former White House counsel who was chief legal adviser during the impeachment trial, crediting him for a steady hand and a calming word ''even in the craziest of times.''
Speaking at a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, Clinton hailed the veteran Washington lawyer as ''a competitor with passion, equal parts grace and guts.''
''Every single day - every single day - I was so profoundly grateful that my counsel was so strong and wise and good, and that he believed so profoundly in our Constitution and rule of law,'' the president said, his words echoing among the vaulted stone arches of the cathedral.
Ruff became familiar to the millions who watched the president's impeachment trial. Seated in a wheelchair, he vigorously supported the president's successful efforts to win acquittal in the Senate.
A former Watergate prosecutor, Justice Department official and defender of political figures in legal trouble, Ruff died Nov. 19 after a heart attack. He was 61.
Clinton said Ruff became White House counsel at a ''peculiar point in history,'' one with a Democratic president in the White House and Congress ''in the hands of a particular wing of the Republican party.''
''And a lot of the work of the White House counsel was generated by the attempts of Congress to turn every political difference into a legal issue,'' the president asserted.
''Chuck had to be calm in the face of all of it,'' he said.
While teaching law in Liberia in the 1960s, Ruff was struck by paralysis in his legs. Doctors believed it was caused by a virus, but the cause was never determined.
''For those of us who knew and loved him, Chuck Ruff may have been in a wheelchair, but he had more moves than Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan,'' Clinton said, referring to the basketball stars.
''In a town so often contentious, it was truly amazing to be reminded that you can be civil and effective at the same time,'' Clinton said, appearing at one point to wipe a tear from his eye.