President bends ear to children TV 'town meeting' elicits concerns

February 21, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In perhaps the most wide-ranging "town meeting" he has ever conducted, President Clinton touched on everything from his wife's cooking to the crisis in Bosnia to his cat in a televised question-and-answer session yesterday with children at the White House.

On the one-month anniversary of his presidency, Mr. Clinton fielded a grab bag of questions, some touching, some whimsical, from 40 children between ages 8 and 16 seated around him in the ornate East Room.

"When you were our grade, what was your hardest subject in school?" 9-year-old Willie asked the president. The answer should have come as no surprise: The loquacious Mr. Clinton said his lowest grade was in conduct, " 'cause I talked too much."

True to form, the live ABC-TV special, scheduled for 90 minutes, ran two hours.

In a way, the town meeting, in which Mr. Clinton also took phone-in questions from children around the country, reflected the administration's emphasis on children.

But in the midst of a sales blitz to try to pitch his economic plan to the country, Mr. Clinton also used the occasion to plug components of his package of spending cuts, tax increases and investments.

Many of the nearly three dozen questions put to the president were borne of the personal situations of the youngsters -- among the participants were a homeless child, a boy with AIDS, a recovering drug user and a child with cerebral palsy -- and made for several poignant moments during the program.

The president, who shines in such Donahue-style democracy, tried to reveal himself as a regular guy who empathized with their plights, often leaving his stool to walk up closer to, or even sit beside, a child.

"When I was your age, it was a lot easier to be young than it is now," Mr. Clinton told 16-year-old Michael Cruz of Chicago, who said he fears the gangs and violence rampant in his school.

"We worried about liquor and cigarettes; nobody worried about guns and drugs. And I know it's hard to be young now. But I also know that if you get a good education, nobody can take that away from you. You can still have a good life."

The president told 13-year-old Joey DePaolo of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus at age 5 through a blood transfusion, that he was working on a bill to increase funding for AIDS research. Mr. Clinton told a young boy who believes that his brother's fatal brain tumor was related to the petrochemical plants in his neighborhood that he hoped to invest more money in environmental cleanup and medical research.

"We'll do it for your brother, OK?" the president said.

Along with a barrage of serious, straightforward questions on the environment, health care, education and "people all over the world fighting and killing each other" were those reflecting the young questioners' fanciful curiosity about life in the White House.

Omar Hamarneh, 9, of Washington wanted to know whether Hillary Rodham Clinton ever cooked for the president. "Sometimes," Mr. Clinton answered, explaining, however, that neither he nor his wife has cooked since the couple moved to Washington.

"Hillary's actually a pretty good cook," he said. "And I like to cook. I love to make omelets, and sometimes on Sunday nights, Hillary and Chelsea and I will go into the kitchen, and I'll make everybody omelets and we'll sit around and talk.

With the family's cat, Socks, bundled in her arms, 12-year-old Chelsea joined her father for a few minutes during the forum, making her network TV debut and answering a few questions.

Asked what it was like to have Secret Service agents accompany her to school, she said: "It's OK. They stay out of the way. They have an office up on the third floor of my school, and they sit there most of the day, or, when I'm in gym, they come outside and just sit on the bleachers or just watch my soccer practice."

When a boy named Robert asked whether Chelsea was single, && her father quickly chimed in, "She better be."

Interspersed with the lighthearted banter were a few surprisingly tough questions.

Elizabeth, from northern California, said her father's logging business had been shut down because the Endangered Species Act had set aside the forest where he logged, for the sake of the spotted owl. She brought along her school yearbook, having underlined all her classmates whose families are in similar situations.

"This was not a setup, I wish to assure you," Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchorman who served as moderator, told the president.

Mr. Clinton told the youngster that he was organizing a forest summit to look at the issue and come up with some compromises, and, as is his way, he invited Elizabeth and her family to attend.

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