President Clinton is walking door to door among the nation's poor this week, offering sympathetic hugs and announcing millions of dollars in new government incentives to attract private investments in distressed communities.
But when his mile-long motorcade pulls away from each stop in this four-day, six-state tour, those who had basked briefly in his presence are left with the realization that poverty is one of the nation's most intractable problems, outliving presidents who highlighted it, deplored it, even declared all-out war on it.
Thus there's a touch of resignation, even desperation, in the voices of the local officials and ordinary citizens who have greeted the president this week under blistering suns in Kentucky and Mississippi. Today, in this hard-pressed delta town, Clarksdale Mayor Richard Webster made one last plea after giving Clinton a short tour of the downtown that features more closed shops than open ones.
"I hope in your remaining days that we can count on you to remember us," said Webster, a Democrat.
Clinton, making his first visit to Mississippi as president, merely nodded. He already had announced nearly $15 million in new private investments in the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, a nonprofit agency that uses federal grants to leverage private investments in businesses in this region. He soon would announce that Bank of America would pledge $500 million in equity for business enterprises in low-income areas. Of that, $100 million will go into a Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI. Many other firms are pledging millions of dollars as well.
But these public-private ventures with strange-sounding acronyms can go only so far in reassuring people who have witnessed a long, painful exodus of jobs, young adults and hope in places such as Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Indian reservations and Watts--all of which Clinton is visiting this week to promote his "New Markets Initiative."
"Twenty-five years ago, on Friday and Saturday, this place was crawling with people, it was shoulder to shoulder," Webster told the president as they met with a handful of business owners inside the "Ooo So Pretty" floral shop. Outside along Issaquena Avenue, the long-shuttered Roxy Theater looked like a prop for "The Last Picture Show." With some federal help, Webster suggested, the Roxy might be turned into a museum or a "working arts" center.
Clinton, wearing a teal, short-sleeved shirt and brown slacks, said he had overseen some successful renovation projects as Arkansas governor. "I think you can do it," he said.
Johnny Newson, owner of a nearby auto parts store, joined in the appeal to Clinton. Here in Coahoma County, where 37 percent of the residents live in poverty, officials need money and expertise to attract new businesses, he said. "With a little help from Washington, I think you'd be proud of Clarksdale."
Clinton, leaning against a counter and sipping a bottle of Ozarka water, nodded and said "thank you."
An hour later, before several hundred sweltering people in a cabinet-making plant here, he specified some of his ideas to battle poverty. "Ever since I became president," he said, "I have done what I could do to increase investment in undeveloped areas through the empowerment zones, which give tax credits and put tax money into distressed areas . . . through getting banks to more vigorously approach the Community Reinvestment Act and setting up Community Development Financial Institutions."
"We are going to do everything we can in the government to give the financial incentives necessary for people to invest here," Clinton said. "I am making this tour of America for one simple reason: I want everybody in America to know that while our country has been blessed with this economic recovery, not all Americans have been blessed by it."
Many in Clarksdale agree. Retired teacher Myra Turner braved the heat to wave to Clinton but said it will take more than a presidential visit to turn things around. Asked whether the national rise in jobs, wages and construction had touched her home town, she replied: "That doesn't fit Clarksdale, none of the above. We need more job opportunities, more transportation."
Beatrice Spencer Burton, 50, was more hopeful. "I came down because I had been praying to the Lord to have a president to have mercy on Clarksdale," she said. "This is a blessing from God. This is a turning point for Clarksdale."
Clinton ended his day with a speech in East St. Louis, Ill., where he called for increased private-sector investments in hard-pressed urban areas. He then flew to South Dakota to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Wednesday.
CAPTION: President Clinton shakes hands along Issaquena Avenue in Clarksdale, Miss. He is on a four-day, six-state tour of some of the nation's most intractably impoverished areas.