Clinton strolls among neighbors-to-be

November 19, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- On his visit to the town that will soon be his home, President-elect Bill Clinton ventured out beyond the marble monuments to a distant stretch of neon signs, laundromats and liquor stores where some of his new neighbors live.

And in true neighborly fashion, thousands of area residents poured onto the block of mostly black-owned businesses in Northwest Washington to welcome the incoming leader with everything from a Redskins cap to carry-out Chinese food to a saxophone solo.

"I expect to be out in this city quite a lot," Mr. Clinton told the largely black crowd that had lined a block of Georgia Avenue, not far from open-air drug markets and boarded-up buildings.

"I know that there is a capital city -- not just government buildings, but a city out here, a city that needs a president."

Kissing babies, signing autographs and posing for photos next to Junior Miss Metropolitan Princess, Mr. Clinton seemed to delight in the crowds and the adulation he has been away from since Election Day.

Looking and sounding as if he was back on the campaign trail, he chatted with Bernadine Carey, owner of Bernie's Hair Salon, about investing in small businesses and setting up community development banks. He told the owner of Sing Long Carryout that Chinese people would have a friend in the White House.

One man pleaded for the president-elect to do something to stop the murders of young black males "right in these alleys" by providing jobs for them.

"That's why I came here today," Mr. Clinton said. "I wanted to send a message."

A woman in the crowd sang the praises of Alice Deal Junior High School, a public school in Northwest Washington. "I will tell Chelsea that," Mr. Clinton said, referring to his 12-year-old daughter, who will be attending school -- public or private -- in Washington. "We've got Chelsea looking at four or five different schools. That's one of them."

Most of all, he attempted, as much as anyone who arrives in a lengthy motorcade could, to be one of the people.

"I love your earrings," he told one woman.

"I run through shoes faster than anyone you know," he told the owner of Coates Shoe Repair.

"Have you seen the movie yet?" he asked a man in the crowd wearing a Malcolm X cap. "I talked to Jesse Jackson last night, and he said it was the best movie he'd seen in 20 years."

After yesterday's walk in a working-class neighborhood not far from crime-ridden parts of the city, Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, attended a fund-raising reception for the Children's Defense Fund and then a private dinner at the home of Washington lawyer and Clinton transition chairman Vernon Jordan.

Today, after meetings with congressional delegations, the president-elect will attend another private dinner, this one at the swank Georgetown home of Pamela Harriman, a prominent Democrat and Washington hostess.

The evening social events, with high-powered guest lists of Washington insiders, contrasted sharply with yesterday's visit to an inner-city neighborhood.

The upper Georgia Avenue block, about a 15-minute ride north of the White House, where Mr. Clinton had just met with President Bush, is one of the black business districts in the city that are being redeveloped. It borders poor and middle-class neighborhoods.

Mr. Clinton clearly scored points with his visit. Most of the area residents and business owners said it was the first visit they could recall from a member of any administration.

"It means he's off to the right start," said Thomas Caviness, owner of Tynisha's Art & Gift Shop, who said he has had to add fruits and vegetables to his wares to keep his business afloat.

"A politician cannot govern unless they know the people, their constituents. It's OK to sit down and read statistics about homeless people and people on welfare, but unless you get out there and see the plight of these people, you're really doing this by proxy."

Herman Coates, owner of the shoe repair business, said he realized the visit was "symbolic" but thought it was important nonetheless. "I think it's a bit of symbolism that's important, being that this is a minority neighborhood, and it's the first time any president I've known of has made any attempt to reach out to us," he said.

Clinton aides said yesterday that the president-elect will continue a public outreach program during the next two months of his transition, employing many of the techniques honed during the campaign, such as town hall meetings and radio call-in shows.

But Mr. Clinton clearly enjoys the hand-to-hand contact.

"The reason I wanted to come here is these small-business people are the backbone of the economy of this city," he told the crowd yesterday. "I also wanted to show America that I'm going to do my best not to get out of touch as president. I'm going to try to stay out here with the people that put me in."

Amid the grab bag of gripes and pleas -- "Release the files on [Lyndon] LaRouche," "Free Africa," "D.C. statehood" -- he heard lines as mellifluous as the unidentifiable tune one fan played on a soprano saxophone.

"I'm glad you're with the common man," one well-wisher said. "You're keeping your pledge."

"I want a picture with you like the one you had with Kennedy," another man in the crowd told the next president. And they posed together for a photograph.

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