Clinton praising effort of Westinghouse plant Visit to Linthicum to recognize shift from defense work

March 11, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was scheduled to visit the Westinghouse plant in Anne Arundel County today to illustrate a message the White House believes is essential for the nation's economic recovery: Companies and communities that have relied on military contracts must retool for the post-Cold War marketplace.

The president was announcing the details of his "defense conversion" plan at the Westinghouse Electronic Systems complex in Linthicum. The plant was staying closed to the public during the visit.

The nationwide conversion plan calls for spending $1.7 billion next year, most of which was already appropriated by Congress but not spent by the Bush administration, and increased amounts in the ensuing three years. The plan was expected to include:

* More than a half-billion dollars in the form of grants to companies, such as Westinghouse, seeking to expand "dual use" technologies that can be used both for military and civilian purposes.

* Grants to communities that are hard-hit by defense firm layoffs, plant closings or canceled contracts.

* Job retraining programs and early retirement for defense workers.

The trip to Westinghouse was hurriedly put together Tuesday night because White House image-makers were afraid their original schedule would have had the president stepping on his own lines.

The president had thought of discussing defense conversion tomorrow aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. But the "message" for tomorrow, while related to defense, is significantly different.

Tomorrow, with its photo opportunities of the president meeting, saluting and addressing the sailors, is dedicated to Commander-in-Chief Clinton. The mission at sea is the White House's way of trying to erase a perception among some military personnel and their families that Mr. Clinton is anti-military.

That perception began during the presidential campaign, when Mr. Clinton's ducking of service during Vietnam was aired. It reached its pinnacle right after he took office when he fulfilled a campaign promise to fight for the inclusion of homosexuals in the armed services.

Since then, the president has been under intense scrutiny by the military. Some have complained that his salutes tend to be half-hearted and improper. Others are concerned about impending base closings and the absence of former officers among Mr. Clinton's top advisers.

There have also been rumors that senior military people have been insulted at the White House by junior administration aides. These complaints have been aired in published reports, convincing some White House aides that Mr. Clinton should divide his time today and tomorrow between civilian defense workers and those on the front lines.

"The president is going to show his support for the troops," says George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman. "He'll be talking to everybody on board and wants to hear what they say as well."

Today, however, was devoted to those who labored in the factories of the Cold War, building weapons for the government that are no longer in as much demand.

"The president is looking forward to announcing a program that will assist both workers and communities on defense conversion, both to help train and retrain workers and assist the communities that are hurt . . ." Mr. Stephanopoulos said yesterday. "He will announce the specific numbers and the specific policies tomorrow."

At first glance, Westinghouse would appear to be a likely candidate for assistance: Because of canceled Defense Department contracts, about 4,500 Westinghouse employees in Maryland have lost their jobs during the past two years.

On the other hand, Westinghouse has made an ambitious effort to reconstitute itself to keep up with the times, and this is the angle that Mr. Clinton was expected to play up today, according to his aides.

Westinghouse officials say that in the mid-1980s they embarked on strategic, long-term planning designed to lessen Westinghouse's dependence on military contracts. By 1990, these plans were formally adopted, according to Jack M. Martin, company spokesman. Mr. Martin says the current objective is to make Westinghouse Electronic Systems only half dependent on defense contracts by the mid-1990s.

In the past, almost all the company's business came from the Pentagon, he says. Today, 27 percent of its business comes from civilian contracts, most of them for its ASR-9 surveillance radar, which is on line at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"We adapted our [military aircraft] radar to a ground-based system and sold it to the F.A.A.," Mr. Martin says proudly. "We will soon be in the 137 busiest airports in the United States."

This is precisely the kind of example the president wants to tout.

"The success of defense conversion depends on this kind of approach by the defense contractors," says one administration official.

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