N.H. 'town meeting' lets president return to favored issues Leaving Whitewater behind

March 16, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Sun Staff Writer

NASHUA, N.H. -- President Clinton came to New Hampshire determined to show his critics in Washington that Whitewater is strictly an inside-the-Beltway obsession. On the surface, at least, he succeeded.

In a meeting in a school gym here yesterday, not one person asked Mr. Clinton to expound on unanswered questions about the Whitewater affair. The only person who even mentioned the word was a 68-year-old woman who exclaimed, "Whitewater is for canoeing and rafting!"

The audience of 1,200 broke into loud applause -- and Mr. Clinton laughed gratefully until he was red in the face.

But a closer look at the composition of those in attendance had even some local Democrats blushing a bit themselves.

Billed as a "New England town meeting," the event was, in fact, a carefully controlled Democratic political rally. White House strategists may really believe that ordinary Americans care more about health care and crime than about questions over Whitewater, but they left nothing to chance.

Tickets to the event were doled out by Rep. Dick Swett, a Democrat who is a longtime Clinton ally, and by the local mayor, Rob Wagner, who screened the requests in search of Clinton supporters.

On Monday, Mr. Wagner phoned Nashua's police chief while a reporter was in his office and said, "No Republican stuff, keep it positive."

In 1992, Mr. Wagner sent President George Bush a bill for overtime pay accrued by the city during the president's visit -- an action that local Republicans considered a cheap political stunt. Asked whether he intended to send Mr. Clinton an equivalent bill, Mr. Wagner said, "This is different."

Yesterday's rally started with laudatory remarks by Mr. Swett and Mr. Wagner, who said the audience was a "cross-section" of the American people. "A few more Democrats than Republicans, but we've waited a long time," he said.

Mr. Clinton then took 10 questions from the audience. And though the president cheerfully told reporters in the lobby of his hotel yesterday, "This is America," the questions were as partisan as anything one might hear in Washington.

Of the three people who revealed their party affiliations, all said they were Democrats.

Mr. Clinton called on eight women. Seven asked questions about health care or jobs. The other asked about foreign aid.

The two men Mr. Clinton called on were even more unabashedly pro-Clinton. One, a recently discharged Marine, asked the president to sign his certificate of service. When the president agreed, the young man bounded to the stage and got Mr. Clinton's autograph. The other man did not have a question. He just told the president that he was on the "right track," adding, "Don't let the people on the other side of the aisle give you all that rhetoric."

Both here and at a speech later in Keene, N.H., to employees of a printing-equipment manufacturer, a few protesters lined sections of the president's motorcade route. In Keene, one carried a sign saying, "Whitewater DOES matter."

The trip here is part of a White House effort to blunt the effects of widening disclosures in the Whitewater affair.

The effort suffered a setback Monday, with the resignation of a top Justice Department official, Webster L. Hubbell, a former law partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton and a presidential golfing buddy. But even on the day that Mr. Hubbell quit, the president and his advisers labored to show that in the minds of voters, Whitewater is, at best, a diversion from the pressing problems Mr. Clinton is trying to tackle.

In addition, the White House is trying to turn up the heat on Republicans who keep demanding a fuller disclosure on Whitewater. Late Monday night, at a Democratic fund-raising dinner in Boston, Mr. Clinton launched a broad attack on the Republican Party, saying the party has failed to measure up to the great Republican presidents of the past.

"Almost from the beginning, I saw a very different edge to the Republican Party," Mr. Clinton said in an address in which he pounded the lectern in anger. "Not the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but the party dedicated to being against whatever we were for and committed to the politics of personal destruction."

Yesterday morning, asked whether he was still angry, the president hinted that his public display had been, at least in part, calculated.

"I wasn't," he replied. "I was happy. What I said last night, I was not angry, but determined. That was . . . deliberate -- I wanted to tell those people how I felt."

Accompanying Mr. Clinton to New Hampshire were two top aides -- Bruce Lindsey, who has led the damage-control efforts on Whitewater, and George Stephanopoulos, who was by Mr. Clinton's side here two winters ago when Mr. Clinton battled allegations about his personal life as his presidential campaign was getting under way.

"I wanted to see the town meeting and see what real people think," Mr. Stephanopoulos said.

Dayton Duncan, an author and Democratic Party veteran, was also on hand yesterday. When it was pointed out to him that "real people" seemed only to include Democrats, Mr. Duncan replied gamely that a couple of Republican state senators had been invited. "They're out there somewhere," he said.

Whether they were or not, in the president's mind the rally served its designated purpose. In Keene, reporters mentioned to Mr. Clinton that a leading House Democrat, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, has broken with his party's congressional leadership by saying Whitewater hearings would be in the president's interest.

Mr. Clinton snapped back, "You learned nothing at the town meeting."

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