WASHINGTON -- Trying to broaden the appeal of his "national conversation on race," President Clinton finally met last night with a group of prominent Americans who disagree with his prescriptions for solving the nation's racial problems.
Instead of producing fireworks, however, the 90-minute closed-door meeting proved good-natured and, by all accounts, elicited a respectful exchange of ideas on the divisive issue of affirmative action.
The most tangible evidence of that came when the conservatives emerged from the session in the Oval Office. The guests expressed unabashed admiration for their host, even if ,, they were not sure they had tempered the president's support for racial preferences.
"I must tell you that the president made a believer out of me -- that he is of goodwill," said Ward Connerly, who spearheaded California's Proposition 209, a measure that bars affirmative action in state employment or college admission. "He's interested in this subject. He probably understands race like no other president, living or dead."
Linda Chavez, who was director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration, said of Clinton: "He was very clear that he did not in fact believe that those of us in that room who are opposed to preferences are all people of bad will. He clearly feels that we share a common goal."
Critics of affirmative action had complained that the president's campaign to encourage racial dialogue had pointedly failed to include views at odds with his own.
But yesterday, every guest who spoke afterward expressed gratitude that Clinton had not implied that he cares more about racial progress than they do.
"There is a total dedication to racial equality in this country -- the only question is what is the means by which we get there," said Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of a book critical of racial preferences. "I think there was an understanding in the room that, on an issue in which there is an awful lot of terrible name-calling, that we are all people of enormous goodwill."
In his one previous run-in with Thernstrom, Clinton was roundly criticized for his treatment of her. That encounter came at a town meeting on race in Akron, Ohio, this month. Clinton hovered over Thernstrom and demanded that she answer -- "yes or no" -- whether she supported the affirmative action programs in the U.S. Army that the president said had produced Gen. Colin L. Powell.
That exchange seemed to sum up broader problems with the race initiative, which the president had conceived as a way to foster understanding across racial lines. Clinton's support for affirmative action -- and the the inclusion of only like-minded people on the advisory commission he appointed -- had made the racial initiative itself a flash point of tension.
Yesterday's session, which included Vice President Al Gore, offered the first glimpse of ways in which the president might bridge the differences of opinion.
According to transcripts of the meeting, the conservatives began by drawing a distinction between racial "preferences," which they said they oppose, and "affirmative action," which they said they can accept in some forms.
An example of a preference would be a case in which minority applicants to a university are routinely granted admission, while whites with identical -- or even higher -- test scores and grades are rejected. Critics say such a system amounts to discrimination.
An acceptable form of affirmative action, they said, would occur if an elite university sought out a predominantly black or Latino high school in its area and said it would identify promising students there and guarantee them admission and special help.
Clinton has used this example himself as the type of program all Americans ought to be able to agree on. He has asked critics, as he asked his guests yesterday, what alternatives to racial preferences they would propose to improve the achievement levels of poor African-American and Latino students.
"Let's assume we abolished [preferences] tomorrow, and we just had to start all over," the president said yesterday. "What would you do?"
Chavez rose to Clinton's challenge. She touted a scholarship program at the University of Maryland that benefits students who are the first in their family to attend college. The program disproportionately benefits minorities but is not limited to them.
"I would have been able to qualify for such a program," Chavez told the president. "A lot of disadvantaged kids out there would.
"Once those children are identified, they're brought into a summer program; they're given tutoring and special classes," Chavez added. "They're given study schools; they're given counseling."
The president told Chavez that he believed such approaches illustrated what affirmative action was designed originally to do: to help those who have been culturally and economically deprived.