WASHINGTON, DC—Citing "America's unprecedented prosperity and stability" and "this one part where this ship is underwater and this sea-monster thing tries to eat it," Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to take a leave of absence Tuesday, temporarily stepping down to wait in line for the May 19 opening of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace.

President Clinton and other <I>Star Wars</I> fans wait outside a D.C.-area Loew's Multiplex for the May 19 opening of <I>The Phantom Menace</I>.

"My fellow Americans, like so many of you, I am extremely eager to see the next chapter in the greatest movie series in the history of mankind," Clinton, sporting a limited-edition IG-88 tie clip, said during a White House press conference. "And, as president of the nation that has produced these movies, I am fully committed to being at that very first showing, even if it means missing almost four weeks of work."

Added Clinton: "There are these droids in Phantom Menace that look like giant orbs, but then they unfold like Transformers and fight. And Darth Maul has this light saber that's double-bladed. It's going to be so incredible."

Clinton began waiting in line with "Joe," a friend who owns The Sarlacc Pit, a comic-book store in downtown D.C.

"Joe is the only person who can beat me at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. He knows the English lyrics to 'Lapti Nek.' He was also the one who told me that Uncle Owen is really Obi-Wan's brother, which came as quite a surprise, because, like most people, I had always assumed that Owen was Anakin's brother. I did, however, inform Joe that Bruce Boa, the actor who played General Rieekan, also played the guy on Fawlty Towers who wanted the Waldorf salad. Joe did not know that."

Clinton arrived at the theater at 11:38 a.m. Tuesday, becoming the 17th person in line. But by 2 p.m., he had maneuvered his way to sixth by winning a series of Star Wars Collectible Card Game tournaments and trivia challenges.

"This one guy tried to beat me by asking Hammerhead's real name. Can you believe it? As if I'd never read Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina, even if I wasn't into the role-playing game. I knew he was a rube when he asked that, so I went in for the kill by asking him the name of the Rodian in the Star Wars Holiday Special."

"Of course," Clinton continued, "Hammerhead is Momaw Nadon, and the Rodian was Ludlo." The president then excused himself to join a group sing-along of "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Yoda."

President Clinton announces his <I>Star Wars</I>-related leave of absence before members of Congress.

Despite being confined to one spot for the next month, Clinton said he expects to have plenty of activities to pass the time. "Joe and I are trying to organize a thing where we divide up parts and re-enact all the movies, except we both want to be Han. I think I should get to be Han because I am the leader of the free world, but if that becomes a deal-breaker, I would likely be willing to compromise."

Presidential aides have also been instructed to supply Clinton with magazine articles concerning Episode I as they become available, as well as deliver, immediately upon publication, the final installment of the four-issue Dark Horse Comics miniseries Boba Fett: Enemy Of The Empire.

"Issue three ended just as Fett and Vader were about to start fighting," Clinton said. "They both want this alien head in a box that can tell the future, and the moment Fett finally gets it, Vader appears. Obviously, it's not going to be a fight to the death, because the whole story takes place prior to the trilogy, but it's still sure to be a great fight."

Clinton said he hopes to see Phantom Menace at least 20 times between May 19 and May 23, then return to office on the 24th, when he will scale back to once-a-day screenings. The president also noted that during his extended absence from the White House, he will be available in the event of an emergency.

"Should a major crisis arise, whether regarding the situation in Kosovo or anywhere else, I can be reached at my place in line by cell phone," Clinton said. "But I have urged my advisors only to contact me if absolutely necessary. I would also urge Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to follow the example of the Jedi Knights and use his powers only for knowledge and defense, never for attack."

Added Clinton: "Wars not make one great."

Clinton, a die-hard Star Wars fan ever since the 1977 release of the original, has rarely disrupted his official duties for Star Wars-related activities. Notable exceptions include a May 1983 hiatus from the Arkansas governorship to see Return Of The Jedi on its opening day and a 1995 trip to an Arlington, VA, Star Wars convention to obtain the autographs of actors Anthony Daniels, Jeremy Bulloch and Femi Taylor, as well as Jedi Academy trilogy author Kevin J. Anderson.

Clinton is also believed to have the largest collection of Star Wars merchandise in the entire executive branch.

"I have the Death Star Space Station minus one of the cardboard inserts and a piece of the bridge. The spring-loaded part that makes the gun pop up doesn't work very well, but it's still awesome," Clinton told Larry King in a 1997 interview. "I also have almost every action figure, except a few rare ones like Blue Snaggletooth and Yak Face."

Clinton went on to tell King that the infamous "missile-firing Boba Fett" action figure, rumored to have been produced in small quantities by Kenner, never actually reached the consumer, and that the only such Fetts available are ones made by collectors.

Despite the popularity of Clinton's hiatus within the nation's science-fiction/fantasy community, Republican leaders have roundly denounced the move.

"Clinton was given the trust of a nation and, once again, he has abused that trust, abandoning his post during a time of war. There are more important things for him to be worrying about at this juncture than such trivial concerns," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said. "Besides, I hate that stupid Jar-Jar. He totally sounds like Elmo."

Specter then sneered in a high-pitched voice, "Oooh, people gonna die?"

Clinton responded swiftly to Specter's criticisms.

"I would urge all Americans to withhold judgment on the Jar-Jar issue until they have seen the film. After all, Yoda talked like Grover, and he is one of the great characters in the Star Wars pantheon," Clinton said. "As long as Phantom Menace doesn't have those stupid teddy bears in it, I don't care."

"I've been waiting 16 years for this movie, and now it's almost here," Clinton said. "I can't believe it. I'm so excited, I feel like I could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs."