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Clinton to Address Split Reaction to Simpson Trial : Race relations: President says he’s ‘very concerned’ about apparent racial gulf.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton, declaring himself “very concerned” about the racial gulf exposed by the O.J. Simpson verdict, said Tuesday he would speak out on the explosive issues raised by the trial once he has time to “really think this through and speak to some people.”

Clinton’s reticence to comment in the week since the verdict has brought fire from pundits and critics, ranging from former Education Secretary William J. Bennett on the right to Harvard professor Cornel West on the left. Most have suggested that Clinton, who has used the theme of racial reconciliation to build his political career, should now show presidential leadership on the issue despite the risks it poses.

At a press conference with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Clinton acknowledged surprise at the starkly polarized reaction to the verdict, and expressed hope that Americans would see past their differences.

“I must say that, even though I thought I knew a lot about how people of different races viewed things in America, I have been surprised by the depth of the divergence in so many areas,” he said.

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He said he had been thinking about the subject “a lot” and promised he would say more in the next few days.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton had been reflecting on a range of new information on the subject. These included a Washington Post poll suggesting that Americans’ fears about an ethnically changing society were based on misinformation and an advocacy group’s week-old study finding that nearly one-third of black men in their 20s are under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

“There’s a lot he’s looking at,” McCurry said. He forecast that the speech would discuss race relations, but “not solely through the prism of the O.J. trial.”

At the time of the verdict, Clinton released a three-sentence statement saying that the justice system requires that Americans respect the verdict of the trial.

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In an interview with USA Today last Friday, Clinton said it would be a “great mistake” for Americans to stumble into new divisions because of the verdict.

Several Democratic strategists acknowledged that the subject of race relations is a difficult one, but Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst noted that well-crafted speeches that call for racial healing have long been part of Clinton’s repertoire. “You talk about feelings, and the need to get over the pain. Clinton’s pretty good at that.”

Separately on Tuesday, Clinton raised the possibility of using a change in assumptions about economic growth and government spending as a means to compromise with congressional Republicans on the 1996 budget.

“We adopted very conservative economic projections,” Clinton said.

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But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said in a joint press conference that they would not give up the Congressional Budget Office assumptions in favor of the White House’s, as officials have suggested.

“This is exactly what is sick about this city,” said Gingrich. “Let’s find one more excuse to lie to the American people. . . . Let’s gimmick it up.”

The comments signaled that the Republican leadership was backing away from the conciliatory gestures of recent weeks, and reverting to a more confrontational attitude.


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