WASHINGTON -- Amid complaints that President Clinton is ducking out of town during a huge gay and lesbian march April 25, the White House has invited a delegation of gay and lesbian leaders to meet with the president in the Oval Office this afternoon.
Gay leaders had mixed reactions to the announcement. On the one hand, some expressed delight at what they characterized as the first exclusive meeting in history between a United States president and openly homosexual Americans.
On the other hand, they still very much want the president to attend their march -- and plan to use their meeting with him to tell him so.
"We're going to say, 'Mr. President, there will be about a million people in town expecting you to be at the march,' " said Scout, a Chicago-area activist who doesn't use a last name. She is one of the national co-chairs for the Committee for the March on Washington.
"President Kennedy did not attend the 1963 civil rights march -- and publicly regretted it weeks later," she added. "We don't want that to happen to President Clinton."
The delegation does not expect an answer from the president immediately.
Some Americans, of course, don't want the president meeting with gay rights activists at all. On April 23, 1990, when President Bush signed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, the White House invited gay leaders, as well as Jewish groups, black members of Congress, civil rights leaders and others to the bill signing ceremony at the White House.
The ceremony went smoothly, but for the next two years, Mr. Bush heard criticism from evangelical groups and some conservative Republican politicians for inviting gays and lesbians the White House.
George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, reiterated yesterday that Mr. Clinton will spend part of TTC the weekend in question in Jamestown, Va., with Democratic senators, and will also head to Boston to address newspaper executives that Sunday, the day of the march.
Although Mr. Clinton welcomed the support of gay leaders during the 1992 campaign and though he has openly gay advisers on his staff, the White House is treading gingerly on this subject because of the huge backlash engendered by his effort to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military.
Mr. Clinton promised to do this during the campaign, and promptly tried to fulfill his campaign promise after being sworn in -- only to run into fierce opposition, not only from the military establishment and conservative Republicans, but from some prominent Democrats, notably Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Mr. Clinton's reluctance to stand with gays and lesbians at what might turn out to be their biggest gathering ever could, in turn, prompt a second backlash against Mr. Clinton.
"We don't believe standing alongside gay men and lesbians would make a politically embarrassing photograph," said Billy Hileman, an official of the march -- and one of those scheduled to meet with Mr. Clinton today. "I think being alongside Sam Nunn in Virginia could be an embarrassment."
A senior White House official said yesterday that big rallies are not the kind of events presidents usually attend and that the president was unlikely to change his mind.
"We're meeting with their leaders, though, and we would hope they would be impressed with the president's positions on the issues they care about," he said. "The record speaks for itself."
Other gay and lesbian leaders who have been invited to the meeting, according to march organizers, include Nadine Smith, a march co-chairwoman from Tampa, Fla., and Phil Wilson of the Leadership Forum, a black gay and lesbian group based in Los Angeles.
Also, four Washington-based activists are to attend: William Wayborn of the Victory Fund, Tim McFeeley of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, Torie Osborne of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Tom Stoddart of the Campaign for Military Justice.
The activists said yesterday that besides discussing the march with Mr. Clinton, they want to encourage him to hold fast on rescinding the military's gay ban and will solicit his support for a Gay Bill of Rights, which Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy plans to offer in Congress later this month.
They also said they will express gratitude for what they see as Mr. Clinton's courage in hiring gay aides and will ask the president how far he is in the process of appointing the AIDS czar he has promised.
In addition, a separate meeting with AIDS activists is planned the week after the march, officials said.