An innocent question derails Clinton Express


February 21, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

HYDE PARK, NEW YORK — HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- It does not take much to derail a freight train. Just a small bump in the rail bed or a little debris on the track will sometimes do it.

And the faster the train is going, the more high-powered it is, the greater the chance for disaster.

Take the Bill Clinton juggernaut that is now roaring its way around the country. The purpose of the trip is to sell Clinton's new economic plan through a series of carefully planned stops:

Bill Clinton arrives late at night in rural Chillicothe, Ohio, where a thousand people are waiting for him in sub-zero cold. He plunges among them, shaking hands and giving them high-fives.

The next morning, the weather now a balmy 3 degrees, Clinton jogs over to the local McDonald's, where he presents his own coffee cup (good for the environment; less solid waste) and tells the counter person: "Put a little decaf in there."

Then, the high-profile stop of the day: Clinton goes to Chillicothe High, where he holds an hour-long, question-and-answer session.

And, for question after question, he wows the crowd: Social Security, college loans, vocational training, Medicare, the North American Free Trade Act, no matter what people ask about, Clinton has the facts and figures at his fingertips.

Until one question derails him.

A gangly kid with sandy hair and wearing a white-on-white shirt, a paisley tie and a double-breasted blue suit either two sizes too big or the height of current fashion, stands up. His name is Tim Hanchin and he is a senior.

"My question for you, Mr. President," he says in a calm and self-assured voice, "is deep down inside, do you believe that life begins at conception? And, if so, why are we denying the right to life for the 4,400 human beings a day and 1.6 million human beings a year in the murder of an abortion?"

Perhaps it is the loud and prolonged applause that follows the question that rattles Clinton, because now he proceeds to boot what should be a simple answer.

"Wait a minute," Clinton says as the applause for Hanchin continues. "OK. My question for you is: Do you believe that women who have abortions should be tried for first-degree murder?"

To Clinton, this is a rhetorical questions. But somebody forgot to tell Hanchin, who replies: "Yes, I do."

Clinton now launches into a longer reply, when Hanchin, 17, does a terrible thing: He acts like a 17-year-old. He smirks as Clinton is talking.

It is the kind of normal, maddening teen-age smirk that, say, Chelsea might give when her father tells her for the 10 millionth time how he walked to school five miles in the snow or did his studies by firelight.

It is the kind of normal maddening teen-age smirk that Bill Clinton does not tolerate.

"You may smile with all your self-assurance, young man," Clinton snaps at Hanchin, "but there are many Christian ministers who disagree with you!"

Some in the crowd cheer. But some in the crowd gasp. And Clinton knows he has made a mistake. This is supposed to be a Clinton-shows-his-knowledge stop. Not a Clinton-KO's-teen-ager stop.

And when the event is nearly over, Clinton tries to patch things up.

"I don't think it was all that easy for that young man to stand up there and ask that question . . . and I was proud of him for doing that and I think you should be, too," the president says.

Afterward, I ask Hanchin to explain his smirk.

"It was a smile," he says. "I smile a lot. I meant no disrespect. I was very honored to meet the president and be allowed to express my views."

OK, fine, Clinton is honored, too (and hopes the media doesn't make too much of it), and now moves on to the final stop of the day: Hyde Park, N.Y., the hometown of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Crowds line the highway on the route from the airport for a glimpse of Clinton. And as the motorcade approaches a roadside exotic dance parlor, two young women throw off their coats to reveal tiny bikinis, one hot pink and the other lime green.

They women glimpse Clinton through the window of his limo, and they shout and wave and bounce up and down on their bare feet.

And the president makes his smartest decision of the day: He doesn't stop.

Bill Clinton is back on track.

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