President Clinton came to the Westinghouse plant in Linthicum yesterday hoping to get a look at the defense contractor of the future.
"What you have done here is what I want to do nationally," the president said after popping out of the driver's seat of a Dodge Caravan van powered by a Westinghouse electric motor.
He was referring to the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group's efforts in recent years to reduce its dependence on military contracts. Those contracts account for 73 percent of total sales, compared with a previous 85 percent, and the company plans to reduce that share to 50 percent by 1995.
The electric car, which Westinghouse is developing with Chrysler Corp., is just one example of the company's thrust into new commercial markets, but it was one that seemed to capture the president's fancy.
"How fast will it go?" Mr. Clinton asked as he looked under the hood of a second electric vehicle, a dark blue Dodge Dakota Sport pickup whose regular engine was replaced by a motor originally designed as part of a submarine propulsion system.
"This is no golf cart," interjected Richard A. Linder, president of the local division. "It will really move."
"It will go 80 mph," another company executive added.
"And this is what it sounds like?" Mr. Clinton asked after he turned the ignition key in the van to hear a low hum from the engine compartment. He sat for a minute with a serious look, holding his lower lip between his thumb and index finger and listening to the engine. Then he said, "I love it."
At another stop on the tour, the president was shown the electronics used in an airborne radar system designed to detect wind shear, which can suddenly, and without warning, push a landing jetliner to the ground. "Can it be used on commercial airliners," he asked. "There must be a lot of interest in this."
While Mr. Clinton praised the company for its efforts in converting from military to civilian markets, he made no mention of the 4,500 Westinghouse workers who have lost their jobs over the past two years, due primarily to cutbacks in or cancellations of defense programs.
The president received an enthusiastic welcome from workers who still worry about their jobs and look to him for security.
"I'm glad that he seems to have an interest in Westinghouse and its employees," said James Quigley, of Parkville, after shaking Mr. Clinton's hand.
"I'm glad he's showing an interest in the working class."
Timothy Henn, said the president's so-called defense conversion initiative "sounds good, but it sounds a little up in the air to me. It needs to be nailed down."
Mr. Henn, 38, has been with Westinghouse for 14 years and he currently works as a technician building models of new systems. What he wanted to hear, he said, "was something along the line of: 'Due to this program, your job is secure.' "
Mr. Clinton never said that.