President Clinton returned to South-Central Los Angeles on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Monday to dust off an old campaign call for a "new covenant" between a caring government and a responsible citizenry.
Clinton, in California for two days to inspect disaster-relief efforts, told an audience at the Community Build youth retraining center that government "should not pretend that we can solve problems that people have to solve for themselves." Yet, citing King's views, he said government should be a partner that enables people to obtain what they need to make the most of their own lives.
It was Clinton's second visit as President to the South-Central neighborhood and came at a time when he has been largely preoccupied with moving to the political center. The South-Central speech, and his earlier remarks at a King Day observance in Denver, were his first public addresses to largely black audiences since the November elections.
But Clinton sought to find common ground with his audience by stressing his determination to fight Republican efforts to cut what he considers worthwhile programs.
Funded by about $7 million in Labor Department grants, the youth training center tries to teach skills to teen-age boys and young men and find them jobs. Clinton pointed to the example of young men who were building constructive lives with the center's help, and said: "Let's don't cut programs like this one; let's don't cut programs like the national service program; let's don't cut programs like Head Start."
Adding a pitch for his own plan of tax cuts and education incentives, Clinton said, "Let's don't make it more expensive for people to go to college. Let's make it cheaper for people to go to college."
King's goals were much the same as those of today's anxious middle-class Americans, the President suggested. "When Dr. King gave that famous 'I have a dream' speech, he said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream," Clinton said.
To a crowd gathered under a huge tent behind the center, Clinton was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a prime sponsor of the facility.
The gathering offered an opportunity for a public show of harmony with Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, whose relations with Clinton were strained last month when Los Angeles failed to win an expected package of redevelopment tax credits and grants.
To underscore their cordiality, Clinton joshed Riordan and his city about its seemingly unending calamities. He said he asked Riordan "if he thought God had hidden a volcano somewhere in Los Angeles County. Then you could become a new tourist mecca as a full-service disaster area."
Amid all the hoopla, which included a visit by longtime civil rights leader Rosa Parks, some in the crowd were glum over the degree of change in South-Central since King's death.
"Some progress has been made, but there's been back steps too," said Emmit Bell, 76, a retired bus driver. "I don't think Martin Luther King would be too upbeat if he were here today."
Still, Bell clapped loudly when Clinton took the stage.
"He's doing the best he can," Bell said. "With the Republicans in power, he's an underdog now."
Clinton saw something of Los Angeles' hardships firsthand in his first hours in the city. Leaving South-Central for Santa Monica, where he stayed overnight, his motorcade became caught behind a mass of traffic on the freeway and crawled along for 20 minutes.
Clinton is scheduled to inspect earthquake damage at Cal State Northridge today before heading to Roseville, near Sacramento, to review federal flood relief efforts.