``I just had an unlucky break,'' Clinton told a post-operation press conference via telephone from his hospital room. ``You know, this was just an accident. Accidents happen to people.''
An avid golfer and frequent jogger, Clinton probably will not be able to play golf for four to five months or to jog for perhaps six months, said Cmdr. David Wade, chief of clinical services at the Naval hospital. ``He will regain the unlimited use of his leg,'' Wade added.
Doctors gave Clinton a local anesthetic for the surgery, and he was never unconscious before or during the two-hour operation, which was described as successful. After consultations between Clinton and his physicians, the operating room echoed with songs by pop musicians Jimmy Buffett and Lyle Lovett during surgery.
Presidential powers were never turned over to Vice President Gore, although White House aides reviewed procedures for doing so if necessary. Gore was in California promoting the administration's education initiatives, and did not cut his schedule short before returning to Washington last night.
In his post-surgery remarks, Clinton declared his intention to travel to a summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin next Wednesday and Thursday in Helsinki. And Clinton good-naturedly admonished reporters not to badger his doctors about the trip. ``We're all going to Helsinki. We have to go to Helsinki,'' the President said.
Doctors normally would not recommend such a trip so soon after surgery, Wade conceded, but he added: ``It certainly can be done very safely.'' At least one extra doctor will accompany the President, who never travels without a well-equipped medical unit in his entourage.
Clinton injured himself at 1:20 a.m. yesterday when he stumbled on steps at golfer Norman's 80-acre estate in Hobe Sound, Fla., where the President was spending the night.
Clinton had planned to play in a two-day golf tournament that Norman sponsors, but instead was flown to Washington for the operation.
Clinton suffered a greater-than-50-percent tear of his quadriceps tendon, which connects the upper thigh to the kneecap. Doctors cut a four-to-five-inch incision down the outside of Clinton's right leg and drilled holes into his kneecap to reconnect the tendon.
``Any operation is a moderate big deal, but this is not a terribly severe injury and not a terribly complicated operation to perform,'' Wade said.
The surgery was performed by Cmdr. David P. Adkison, chief of orthopedics at the hospital. He was assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Marlene de Maio. Both physicians are trained sports-medicine orthopedic surgeons.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was called at the White House and informed of the mishap early yesterday morning. She had been scheduled to leave this morning on a two-week trip to Africa with daughter Chelsea, but decided to delay her departure by one day in light of Clinton's injury.
The President's immediate schedule was tentative. ``We're just waiting to see how he feels,'' said deputy press secretary Mary Ellen Glynn.
Gore was to deliver Clinton's weekly radio address today, she said. He also will fill in for Clinton at tonight's annual Gridiron dinner, where the capital press corps satirizes the mighty.
Clinton's injury was a freak accident.
After they had conversed late into the night, Norman was escorting Clinton to a cottage on his estate when the President fell while descending four dark-wood steps to a stone landing. In the darkness, he apparently misjudged the final step, spokesman McCurry said.
``He remembers his right knee buckling out. He heard a very loud pop,'' said Navy Capt. Connie Mariano, Clinton's personal physician.
Alcohol was not a factor, Mariano told reporters while still in Florida.
Paramedics at Norman's estate rushed to the President's side. They found Clinton lying on the ground being comforted by Norman and a Secret Service agent.
Paramedics checked Clinton's vital signs, put ice and a splint on his leg and put him into an ambulance. He was rushed to nearby St. Mary's Hospital, a 744-bed facility and the closest trauma center.
There he received a magnetic resonance image, or MRI, examination to determine the extent of his injury. He also was given an anti-inflammatory, non-narcotic painkiller called Toradol, and his leg was put in a temporary cast from thigh to ankle.
Shortly after 8 a.m., the President left St. Mary's to return to Washington. He was carried onto Air Force One in a wheelchair, a white cast sticking out the leg of his black jogging suit.
Clinton flashed a thumbs-up sign and shouted ``I feel good'' over the roar of the big jet's engines.
Once on board, the President made a 10-minute telephone call to students at a Florida elementary school that he had been scheduled to visit yesterday.
At 50, Clinton has suffered few health problems other than allergies, although he did strain a ligament in the same knee 17 years ago in a skiing accident. In addition, doctors removed a precancerous lesion from his nose last summer and a benign cyst near his left ear in September.