Midwesterners cheer Clinton Others assail rush to judge him, invasion of his private life

January 29, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Seeking a respite from the grim soap opera unfolding in Washington, President Clinton took his State of the Union show on the road yesterday, traveling to America's heartland for campaign-style stops designed to display political vitality.

"I'm sure glad I got here today!" a beaming Clinton bellowed to a cheering throng of 12,000 at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. "I wish I could take the pep band with me for a month or two wherever I go."

Employing the newest White House strategy of keeping mum, neither Clinton nor Vice President Al Gore mentioned the swirling sex scandal that has generated talk of resignation -- and worse -- back in the nation's capital.

Later, as he began making his way from Champaign-Urbana to La Crosse, the president got stuck in the mud. Literally. As Air Force One attempted to take off from Willard Airport, the plane veered too sharply to the right on the runway and its two right rear wheels became mired in the soggy ground. The pilot revved the engines, but to no avail.

Another Boeing 707 from the president's fleet was brought in and the passengers boarded the backup plane. Clinton waved at reporters and threw both arms up in a gesture of helplessness.

The minor mishap did little to dampen the seemingly upbeat spirits of the president and vice president, who accompanied Clinton on yesterday's 16-hour jaunt.

Gore did acknowledge events in Washington, but only obliquely -- and only while expressing solidarity with the president.

The crowd responded by rising to its feet and cheering enthusiastically. "We love you, Bill!" one man shouted.

Clinton's speech was a reprise of Tuesday's State of the Union address, with its emphasis on education and setting aside an anticipated budget surplus for Social Security.

In La Crosse, Wis., Clinton and Gore received a warm welcome at an outdoor rally on the banks of the Mississippi attended by 10,000 people.

Half the crowd, it seemed, was decked out in the gold and green of Wisconsin's beloved Green Bay Packers, who were upset in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Clinton consoled them, saying in words that he, too, continues to live by: "Hang in there. There's always next year."

The itinerary for this week's trip was chosen before the Monica Lewinsky allegations surfaced.

But in the wake of last week's lurid accusations, Clinton advisers thought it all the more important to stick to the travel schedule. The White House left little to chance. Both the rally in Illinois and the one here were events that required tickets -- and local Democrats got most of the tickets. But not all.

At the Wisconsin rally, Clinton was greeted by a huge sign written into the snow in letters 20 feet high that read simply, "IMPEACH!"

In Illinois, 26-year-old architecture student Greg Howe said he didn't watch the State of the Union, but had come to hear Clinton speak to see how he would handle himself.

"I'm not interested in the content -- that's not why most people are here," he said. "It's the event and everything circling around it. It's like rubber-necking at a traffic accident."

Still, if what the White House wanted was evidence that everyday Americans have other issues on their minds other than sex in the White House, that was present in abundance here in the Midwest.

"Personally, I don't think we ought to be putting our president on the spot to the degree he is," said Lee Johnston, president of a concrete company in Champaign. "They're human. Many people err, and they don't necessarily have it laundered in front of the world."

In interview after interview, those who came out to see president the day after his State of the Union speech expressed the same three sentiments:

They say that, whatever his personal foibles, Bill Clinton has been a good president on both foreign and domestic issues.

They tend to believe that even a president should have some leeway in his private life, even if involves behavior they don't approve of.

They simply haven't made up their minds about whether they believe Lewinsky's taped assertions that she had sex with the president in the White House -- or Clinton's firm denials.

"I listen, I read, I watch the news, but I'm not sure yet who's telling the truth," said Kathy Thorson, 31, a day care operator from Philo, Ill. "I'm the type who likes to hear all the facts."

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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