By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 1998; Page A13
CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Jan. 28—This upbeat college town seemed to be a long way from Washington today. When President Clinton gave a speech that did not contain a single word about the personal and legal crisis that has engulfed him and the capital over the last week, a crowd of 20,000 people who turned out to hear him could not have cared less.
They got what they came for: a talk focused on Clinton's policy initiatives concerning education, new technology and Social Security.
People who gathered to hear the president in this slow-moving community in central Illinois appeared largely unconcerned with the theatrics and titillation of the percolating Washington sex scandal. It was not that they are unaware of the president's troubles -- they have traded their share of jokes, they said. Some even betrayed misgivings, but by and large, the people who waited in line for hours to hear the president said they were more curious about how he plans to reduce class sizes than about anything he might have shared concerning his alleged involvement with a White House intern.
"I was glad he avoided all of that stuff," said Martin Moran, a 21-year-old senior majoring in political science at the University of Illinois here. "I was much more happy to see him focus on things that affect me, like education and the environment and Social Security. I know a lot of people here would rather hear what he's going to do for us rather than what he did to Monica Lewinsky."
In visiting the University of Illinois, Clinton became only the third sitting president to do so. The first, said University President James J. Stukel, was William Howard Taft in 1911; the other was Gerald R. Ford in 1976.
And so the crowd seemed unambivalent about its chance to see a president. Thousands stood in line for up to five hours to get inside Assembly Hall, the university's basketball arena where Clinton and Vice President Gore spoke. University officials estimated the crowd inside the arena surpassed 12,000. An additional 8,000 watched on closed-circuit television at overflow sites on campus, they said.
The crowd cheered and chanted and waved miniature American flags, creating the equivalent of a pep rally. When the president finally took his place on stage, the crowd greeted him with 90 seconds of applause.
Clinton seemed relaxed and glib in delivering his speech. If he was distressed by the crisis that clouds his presidency, he did not show it. If people in the crowd were disappointed that he did not explain or address the accusations against him, they did not say.
"Quite frankly, I would have been disappointed if he had mentioned that," said Carolyn Dahl, an administrator at the university who attended the speech. "That's the last thing I wanted to hear about. I was much more interested in the educational theme."
To see the president, Kathy Hanneken took a day off from her job, for only the second time in 29 years, and drove two hours through the darkness and fog Tuesday night from her home in Fairfield, Ill. Superintendent of a small school district and the mother of a college student, Hanneken said she was drawn to the event because she was excited about the president's proposals and wanted to hear more, particularly his plans for hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes and constructing school buildings.
"I'm just very, very interested in how he's going to put that into a workable plan. I just feel like there are so many important things for the president to tend to. It just disgusts me the way the media has focused on the sleaze. The guy has done some good things for this country. Who cares if he made a mistake in his personal life?"
In his speech, Clinton heralded his administration's efforts to expand the pot of federal money for student aid, a topic that resonated deeply with an audience that consisted mostly of college students. But Clinton also seemed to impress the crowd with his plan to rescue Social Security with budget surpluses.
"I was just really impressed with the whole speech," said Moran, the political science major. "Being a young person, not too many people here think a whole lot about Social Security, but he kind of made me think about it, and how important it is to have it there. I just found his speech to be really hopeful."
While Clinton's visit seemed to inspire this community, his troubles have most certainly not gone unnoticed here. When the accusations of an illicit affair and possible illegal cover-up surfaced, people here talked about it at length in tones both sober and lighthearted.
"Oh, I was at a Super Bowl party last weekend, and I can barely remember anybody talking about the game," said Zach Haycraft, a 21-year-old finance major. "But I think we're all tired of that now. I'm glad he didn't bring up his problems."
Perhaps a dozen antiabortion demonstrators protested Clinton's arrival outside Assembly Hall. But the overall community's embrace of the president, many here said, reflected the wide appeal of a politician whose popularity and approval ratings were at an all-time high point before the scandal allegations surfaced.
"I just think that a lot of people have genuine affection for the man," said Martha Pederson, a 29-year-old graduate architecture student. "I think it's more and more important in our economy for people to have access to higher education and he's done something about that. I don't care if what they're saying is true about him. I think a lot of us are just ready for this whole scandal thing to be over."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company