Schools Offer 'Haven' for Beleaguered Clinton

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In the face of rising political and legal turbulence, Bill Clinton sought refuge last week in a long-friendly environment.

During school visits and other public events, the president turned to his education agenda--school construction, hiring new teachers, and violence prevention--as scrutiny of his relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky and alleged related misconduct reached a critical new point.

Last Wednesday, Sept. 9, the same day that Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr gave the House a 445-page report on what he deemed possible impeachable offenses by Mr. Clinton, the chief executive visited schools in Orlando, Fla., and released a study on the academic achievement of children in poverty. ("Test Data Show Disadvantaged Pupils Lag Behind More Affluent Counterparts," in This Week's News.)

Just a day earlier, the Democratic president turned his attention to "School Modernization Day," speaking at an elementary school in Silver Spring, Md., and reiterating his K-12 policy priorities. Last week, he also issued his annual proclamation on the start of the new school year.

"Obviously, President Clinton feels education is a safe haven," said Jay Diskey, the spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "This is the easiest way for the president to change the topic, and he very much wants to change the topic at this point."

"Mr. Clinton's going to be in a school every other day between now and the election," predicted Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Not Enough?

Ed Kilgore, the policy director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that Mr. Clinton once chaired, said that the president has tried to keep focused on his job throughout the independent counsel's probe and that education issues have consistently been a top priority for him. But Mr. Kilgore acknowledged that the message had been harder to get out amid the intense news coverage of Mr. Starr's investigation over the past eight months.

"If he were not doing this sort of event, people would be asking questions and saying he wasn't focused on his job," Mr. Kilgore said.

In a speech to Democratic donors in Orlando during his Florida trip last week, the president touched on schools again as he appealed for understanding and forgiveness. Recounting meeting a young student earlier in the day, Mr. Clinton said the boy told him he wanted "to be a president just like you."

The president continued: "I thought, I want to be able to conduct my life and my presidency so that all the parents of the country could feel good if their children were to say that again."

Mr. Clinton's focus on education appears unlikely to deflect attention from the consideration of Mr. Starr's findings that is now getting under way on Capitol Hill. And education groups friendly to the president's agenda are worried that the allegations will undercut Mr. Clinton's ability to negotiate for his proposals on issues such as class-size reduction and teacher hiring, which GOP leaders have consistently ignored this year.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it, Congress will take him much less seriously," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former aide to House Democrats.

"It's inevitable," Mr. Hunter agreed.

Last week in Silver Spring, Mr. Clinton gave a subdued speech that focused mainly on the economy and revisited his most recent education initiatives: a plan to help pay for school construction and renovation bonds, the recruitment of 100,000 new teachers in the neediest districts, and wiring all classrooms to the Internet by 2000. He also alluded to new enrollment figures from the Department of Education, also released that day. ("Enrollment Hits Another Record High, Study Finds," in This Week's News.)

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, as well as other Washington and state officials, stood by his side. But he was not joined by one long-time supporter, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has made school construction funding part of his re-election bid. The Democratic governor's campaign office said he had a prior commitment.

The president's troubles come as Congress prepares to send its annual education spending bill to the White House. Last week, Republicans said they were pleased with Mr. Clinton's attention to education, but believe their own school priorities will prevail this year.

Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said his party welcomes any chance to debate its educational priorities--including a proposed voucher plan for needy District of Columbia students and consolidation of many federal programs into a single block grant. The president has threatened vetoes over both issues.

"We will have a better standing because we're on the right side of this issue," Mr. Pfeifle said, referring to the education policy debate.

And, even on a school campus, Mr. Clinton was not immune from the sharp barbs of critics. While the president received an enthusiastic welcome inside Pine Crest Elementary in Silver Spring last week, the mixed feelings about his presidency were evident just outside in the well-heeled suburban neighborhood where Mr. Clinton was met by about 150 onlookers--some carrying signs of protest--as his caravan approached the school.

Maureen Callahan, who lives a few blocks away from the school, draped a sign over the picket fence in her front yard: "Embarrassed, disheartened, and disgusted by our president."

"He has certainly promoted a lot of education in my family that I wasn't quite ready to discuss with my 7-year-old daughter," Ms. Callahan, who called herself a former Clinton supporter, said in a reference to the sexually graphic aspect of the accusations against the president.

She added, "It was very sad not to be waving an American flag" as his entourage drove past her house.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 22, 24

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Schools Offer 'Haven' for Beleaguered Clinton
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