He Came and He Went Longhorns, Liz, and Damn Good Food

by Andrea Barnett If his press aides are to be believed, President Bill Clinton stayed up until 3:30am preparing for his speech Monday at the Erwin Center. Then, as hundreds of people lined Red River before 7am, Clinton put the finishing touches on an address aides say he largely wrote himself.

Instead of speaking on his planned topic, "From the Campus to the White House: Perspectives on Leadership and Public Service," Clinton talked about race. Evoking the memories of lynching victim Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, Clinton laid blame for the country's racial strife on blacks and whites equally, calling for everyone to "clean house."

"Here, in 1995, we dare not tolerate the existence of two Americas. Under my watch, I will do everything I can to see that soon there is only one," he said. "One America under the rule of law; one social contract, committed not to winner-take-all, but to giving all Americans a chance to win. One America."

The change in scheduled topic left many speculating on the convenience of the President's locale for speaking on race issues. While the Million Man March was beginning that morning on the Washington, D.C., mall, Clinton was just finishing up here in Austin, Texas. What could have been an awkward morning in D.C. for a big white guy from Arkansas, turned out to be rather pleasant day in the sanctity of the Erwin Center.

And it was a star-studded event for political junkies. Joining the usual "town and gown" dignitaries were columnist Molly Ivins, LBJ's daughter Lucy Johnson, former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and former press secretary to Ladybird Johnson, Liz Carpenter. It was heady stuff. Wired Secret Service agents ran around in groups of twos and threes. National publication reporters barked on cell phones, selling the stock story in L.A. and D.C. Perhaps the most memorable moment was witnessed by very few people, before Clinton even took the stage. The White House press corps, a nonchalant group of well-coiffed men and women, stared in unabashed amazement as the thousands of people surrounding them suddenly rose to their feet, thrust their fists in the air - pinkies and forefingers extended - and sang along as the Longhorn band played what sure sounded like "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

The race speech that followed offended no one. The President spoke in vague terms about what the average person can do to stop racism: "First, I want every governor, every mayor... every civic leader, every union steward... to take responsibility for reaching out to people of different races, for taking time to sit down and talk through this issue, to have the courage to speak honestly and frankly - and then to have the discipline to listen quietly with an open mind and an open heart," he said. Regarding specific issues for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans who are concerned that opportunities for things like education and employment are being legislated away, Clinton simply encouraged "personal responsibility" on everyone's part. While supporting the goals of participants in Monday's Million Man March, Clinton issued a thinly veiled attack on Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who spearheaded the march. "One million men are right to be standing up for personal responsibility," he said. "But one million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division."

That was about as political as it got. The president's nine-page speech was short on policy - the closest mention was a brief moment spent on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would allow people who leave work for family or medical emergencies to collect unemployment. For those wondering about Clinton's response to Republican attacks on school lunches and Head Start, Affirmative Action, student loan programs, or clean air and water, well... they're likely still wondering. Clinton did, however, take a stand on such issues as national unity and good families (he's for them); racist cops, deadbeat dads, and domestic violence (he's against them).

It was a performance that moved at least one witness not to cheer, but to fly off the handle. "You all feel real good now, with President Clinton coming and making a racial justice speech here," Alisha Cloud yelled at audience members as they filed out. "He should be in Washington, addressing the black men who came from all over the country. But no, he came to Texas to talk to college students and businessmen - and we're all white!"

"I just had to do that," she added later. "It made me so mad." Cloud wasn't the only attendant protestor, but she may have been the only one with a response to Clinton's actual speech. Just outside the Center, a man carried a sign accusing Bill Clinton both of abandoning liberals and of trying to "take over the 1/7 of the economy." Another drove continuously around the block in a brightly-painted truck, blasting Travis County Attorney Ken Oden and tipping his hat to groups of women. Greenpeace members stood in the balcony with their backs to the stage during the speech, the letters on their T-shirts spelling out "Demand End to French Tests," referring to the nuclear tests being performed by France near New Zealand. A group of young Republicans with Bob Dole for President stickers filed politely past the press section, making occasional nervous eye contact. And outside, Food Not Bombs set up a table serving free bread, beans, and a damned good stir fry.

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