Enthusiastic Crowd Welcomes Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 9, 1998; Page B01
President Clinton received an enthusiastic reception yesterday at a Silver Spring elementary school, where he urged Americans to focus on "the big challenges facing the country" and heard not a word about the Monica Lewinsky affair.
While several prominent Maryland Democrats skipped the invitation-only event at Pine Crest Elementary School, more than 100 educators, local politicians and supporters applauded the president, loudly and at length. The audience often seemed eager to boost Clinton's spirits at a time when many Democrats in Congress and elsewhere are distancing themselves from the president.
With allies fanning out across the country to talk about his education plans -- first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a District school -- the president announced plans to pump more federal money into school construction and teacher salaries. But much of his 24-minute speech was ad-libbed, philosophical, even wistful.
"Meeting the challenges of this time is daunting work," he said to 120 people who were invited to join him in the school auditorium. "You have to follow any week, any month, the headlines about what is going on in the world and here at home, with the economy, in international political events, and you can imagine that, even on its worst day, this is a very interesting job the American people have given me."
The worst days of Clinton's administration may indeed be at hand, and dozens of protesters outside the school called for his resignation. But die-hard supporters made a point of rallying to the Silver Spring site even as the state's most prominent Democrats stayed away. "I am pleased and proud to stand with this president today," exclaimed Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who helped organize the event and vigorously led the applause.
Even the administration of Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who Saturday canceled a fund-raising event with Clinton -- seemed eager to salve some of the president's political wounds. Glendening's running mate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, heaped praise on Clinton's education record during a 90-minute program on school modernization at Pine Crest Elementary.
Nonetheless, conspicuous absences underscored the president's problems, even in a reliably Democratic state such as Maryland. Among the missing were Glendening, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Peter B. Krauser. Three of them -- the governor, Mikulski and Duncan -- are seeking reelection.
Spokesmen for Sarbanes and Mikulski said the senators had meetings and possible floor votes in the Senate yesterday. Duncan had scheduling conflicts, including "official meetings" at the time of the afternoon event at Pine Crest, a campaign aide said. Krauser said he, too, had previous commitments.
Glendening has made a clearer, more public break with Clinton. He said he couldn't attend yesterday's event because of an earlier commitment in Baltimore County. More significantly, last week he canceled an Oct. 2 fund-raiser that Clinton was going to host for him, even though Glendening had said, shortly after Clinton's Aug. 17 acknowledgment of an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, that the fund-raiser was still on track.
Yesterday, Glendening played down his differences with Clinton.
"The Clinton administration is doing a wonderful job in terms of policy," Glendening said as he arrived at a Randallstown restaurant to help kick off Baltimore County's 2nd Annual African American Cultural Festival. "He's focusing on the priorities that matter," such as reducing welfare, repairing crumbling schools and keeping the economy strong.
While Townsend's presence eased tension between the Glendening and Clinton camps, some Maryland Democrats clearly were uneasy with the governor's public snub of the president less than two months before the November election.
"I don't know what to make of it," Wynn said in an interview. "My constituents say they support the president and they want to move past this controversy." Without specifying those who have attacked the president, Wynn said: "It's people being judgmental, people being holier-than-thou, and people being flat-out hypocritical."
Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who chatted several minutes with Clinton as he shook hands after the speech, said in an earlier interview, "I don't want to be a fair-weather friend." It is possible to support Clinton's policies without commenting on his private life, Franchot said.
"I would hope Democrats, at a minimum, would keep their comments to themselves," he said. "Otherwise, it's just joining a feeding frenzy to get him to resign, and that's bad for the Democrats and bad for the country."
Del. Dana Lee Dembrow (D-Montgomery) said he came to the school out of loyalty. "A lot of politicians are fair-weather friends, and as soon as innuendo is out there, they give people the cold shoulder," Dembrow said.
He said he was not alluding to Glendening. "If he wanted to snub the president, he certainly wouldn't have sent the lieutenant governor," Dembrow said. Of Clinton, he said: "His private behavior was indefensible, but his presidency has been impeccable."
Others were not so forgiving. Security officers kept dozens of protesters about a block from the school, where they hoisted signs that said, "You're a liar," "Embarrassed, disheartened, disgusted by our president," "Keep your hands off our daughters!" and "You're fired!"
"He had an adulterous affair with a woman who is about Chelsea's age," said Maureen Linnehan, 26, a registered nurse from Killeen, Tex., who was visiting relatives in Montgomery County. "[His] coming to this school today is a big joke. How can you come in here in front of children and say you're concerned about children when you're setting such a terrible example for them?" Eileen Pemrick, 31, carried a sign saying, "We love Ken Starr," the independent counsel investigating the Lewinsky matter.
In his speech, Clinton said that the nation is doing well, but that Americans should not be complacent. "We have the strongest economy in a generation," he said. "We have a dropping crime rate. We have the lowest welfare rolls in 29 years. We have the highest home ownership in history. Our country has had a remarkable run of economic and social progress, and we have been able to promote peace and security and freedom and human rights around the world."
Some may feel, he said, that "we can all just sort of pat ourselves on the back. I believe that would be a serious error -- a serious error -- because I think, again, at times when you have many blessings, you're responsibilities are greater."
Staff writer Robert E. Pierre contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company