Looking relaxed in a green sport shirt, a ball cap occasionally perched on his graying head, President Clinton quit the political heat of the nation’s capital Thursday to come here and promote a government program intended to protect a select group of rivers.
The low-key program, which he unveiled 18 months ago, offers no new spending. It provides assistance to communities seeking a guiding hand through the maze of existing federal assistance for local conservation efforts.
But in pitching for environmental preservation, Clinton was at his ceremonial best. Buoyed by enthusiastic crowds, he worked rope lines and offered not a clue to the casual observer that--with the same suddenness as the summer storm that blew up around him here Thursday--his presidency is facing another crisis with the talk in Washington once again touching gingerly on impeachment.
On the river bank, he received a friendly, if not overly enthusiastic, welcome. The crowd of several thousand--Clinton said it numbered 6,500--applauded longer when Vice President Al Gore was introduced than it did when Clinton rose to speak.
The visit to this sparsely populated corner of North Carolina, where patches of tobacco and small dairy farms cling to the steep hillsides, was the first of a day that took the president in the evening to Raleigh. There, he attended a fund-raising reception for John Edwards, the Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina, and an enthusiastic public Democratic rally at the State Fair grounds.
But, in the midst of the uncertainties enveloping his presidency, the excursion to a river bank in the rugged northwest corner of North Carolina offered Clinton an opportunity to display the mantle of his power, provide a photo opportunity of an engaged president and, however briefly, change the topic of public debate.
There was some strategy in the pose. In coming weeks and perhaps months, the White House plans to portray a sunny, business-as-usual demeanor regardless of the political clouds overhead. White House officials said that--while Washington fixates on expected testimony from Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky on allegations that they had a sexual relationship and tried to cover it up--the president would keep to his presidential schedule as usual.
Pointing to this week as an example, aides said that--despite the controversy--Clinton went “toe to toe” Monday with experts on Social Security’s future. On Tuesday he gave a eulogy for the two police officers who died in the Capitol shooting a week ago and on Wednesday he gave a speech to an international forum on education.
“The biggest political mistake would be not to stay doing the people’s business,” said one official, expressing a degree of weariness about the controversy that will not go away. “Since the day he announced for president we’ve been dealing with this crap.”
Although critics have been skeptical that Clinton could keep on track while one disclosure after another has unfolded about his presidency, the officials said, he is intent on remaining focused on policy goals and the tasks of office--even as Aug. 17, the date scheduled for his grand jury testimony, looms.
Clinton seems genuinely to enjoy being president and working the crowds. And he found himself Thursday--first broiling under a hot sun and then being drenched under a roiling storm cloud--on the banks of the misnamed New River where it cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a quiet-flowing, shallow-enough-to-walk-across waterway that just happens, at 320 million years of age, to be the oldest in the nation, by the estimate of geologists.
To shouted questions from reporters about the Lewinsky matter he turned a seemingly deaf ear as he shook hands along a line of lively supporters. His hearing returned when some in the line shouted encouragement saying: “Mr. President, we support you.” They were rewarded with presidential smiles.
More public exposure to friends awaits the president. Clinton will spend the weekend at the East Coast home of Steven Spielberg and plans to attend fund-raising parties, some with cover costs of $25,000 per person, expected to raise $1 million for the Democratic National Committee. One party is hosted by investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, the other by actors Alex Baldwin and Kim Bassinger, on the east end of Long Island.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this story.