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Mrs. Clinton Gets Enthusiastic Welcome From Her 'Biggest Fans'

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New Orleans--Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off the N.E.A. Representative Assembly's meeting here last week with an appeal for the union's support in passing the Administration's embattled health-care plan.

The union, which has lobbied aggressively for universal coverage, responded by rallying behind Mrs. Clinton and declaring themselves her "biggest fans.''

One delegate to the assembly, who was among the throng that surrounded the stage after Mrs. Clinton's speech, carried a sign suggesting "Bill--1996, Hillary--2000.''

Mrs. Clinton--the only First Lady to address the union's policymaking body since Eleanor Roosevelt introduced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to delegates in 1938--argued that universal health insurance is "not an economic or a political imperative, [but] a moral imperative.''

"When you look in the eyes of a sick child, you are not looking at a Democrat or a Republican,'' she said, "but an American who deserves to be taken care of.''

The President's health-care plan, crafted by a panel headed by Mrs. Clinton, faces stiff opposition from Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress. (See related story, page 14.)

In addition to her remarks on health care, Mrs. Clinton had some harsh words for those who criticize the President's education policies and the public schools.

"There are forces at work in this country who do not believe in you,'' she told the nearly 10,000 delegates. "Those forces want to undo the work represented in Goals 2000,'' the President's education package approved earlier this year.

The excitement surrounding Mrs. Clinton's visit was matched only by the thunderous applause and standing ovation for Sandra McBrayer, the National Teacher of the Year, who delivered an emotional--and, at times, humorous--speech on teaching homeless youths in San Diego.

Although a banner proclaiming the theme of this year's conference, "Public Education Is a Public Trust,'' loomed large over the main stage, union members were surprisingly quiet on the issue of privatization.

The atmosphere was a noticeable change from last year's meeting in San Francisco, where the California Teachers' Association was gearing up for its $1 million battle to defeat a private-school-choice initiative on the 1993 state ballot.

At that meeting, thousands of delegates wore antivoucher buttons, and most featured speakers made at least a token reference to fighting the forces behind the privatization movement.

This time around, however, only Keith Geiger, the N.E.A. president, laced his speech with such rhetoric.

"Today, merchants of greed mask their money-hungry motives with phrases like 'school choice,''' he boomed. "Their privatization schemes would deepen social and economic divisions that are already far too deep.''

But the union is beating the "profiteers'' of the private companies and "proving that Americans want community-based--not corporate-imposed--education for their children,'' Mr. Geiger said.

"At a time when public education and our association are under relentless attack, we continue to grow,'' he said, pointing out that this year the union hit the 2.2 million membership mark.

The delegates this year also declared war on the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, voting to boycott Florida orange juice if state citrus officials renew a $1 million advertising contract with his radio program.

Mr. Limbaugh, whose show is an increasingly popular forum for no-holds-barred conservatism, has poked fun at the union and the perceived follies of the public schools.

The boycott proposal, adopted on a close vote, angered several delegates, who said the union was again wandering into territory where it did not belong. After an earlier vote on a resolution that appeared to have no direct connection to education, one delegate said the "N.E.A. does not stand for the National Everything Association. It still stands for the National Education Association.''

Others said they feared the union was handing Mr. Limbaugh the kind of ammunition that will boost his show's ratings even higher.

After the boycott proposal passed, one union member, who threw up his hands in frustration, said of the talk-show host: "Oh, he's going to love this.''

Indeed, Mr. Limbaugh headlined his July 5 radio show with news of the N.E.A. vote, citing it as fresh proof of the union's liberal political agenda. The N.E.A. remained a topic for Mr. Limbaugh and his callers throughout the week; some listeners called in to say they were teachers who took a dim view of the union's political slant.--JOANNA RICHARDSON

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