PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- President Clinton hit the road yesterday to promote his "signature" government initiative: an ambitious program of voluntary national service for young people.
Mr. Clinton's sales effort was long on sweeping rhetoric and historic symbolism but devoid of specifics, including how the plan would work.
National service "in the next few years will change America forever and for the better," he said in pitching his proposal to several thousand students in the politically important state of New Jersey. Last night, Mr. Clinton reached an even larger audience of young people, appearing on a special MTV program taped here earlier in the day.
Portraying his plan as "a great national adventure," Mr. Clinton likened it to the GI bill, which allowed many World War II and Korean War veterans to pay for college.
"Merit, and not money, should give people a chance for a higher education," the president said.
The president chose the 32nd anniversary of the Peace Corps, the volunteer plan founded by his hero, President John F. Kennedy, to promote his domestic service plan.
Joining Mr. Clinton on stage in the Rutgers University gymnasium were the lone surviving Kennedy brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and the late president's brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps.
Under the Clinton plan, college loans would be forgiven for students who work for two years after graduation as a teacher, police officer, medical technician, or in some other form of community assistance.
Details of the plan have not been worked out, including how many students would take part each year and how much loan money each could defray.
White House aides rejected suggestions that the program will fall short of expectations Mr. Clinton raised during last year's campaign. But the administration proposes to phase in the program over four years.
And even in 1997, when spending would increase sharply, the number of students taking part -- at least 100,000 -- would probably be less than 10 percent of those who get college loans.
Mr. Clinton expressed the hope yesterday that everyone who wanted to participate could do so. But he acknowledged that if "in one year a million people want to convert from a loan to service, we won't be able to afford that." About 5 million students now receive college loans, the White House said.
As Mr. Clinton landed at Newark International Airport yesterday morning, no unusual security measures were evident. The airport is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the same agency that operates the World Trade Center, which was a bombing target Friday.
Although he said he was "very concerned" about the disaster, Mr. Clinton told reporters that he hoped the American people would not "overreact to this at this time."
As if to demonstrate his own lack of concern, Mr. Clinton abandoned his bullet-proof limousine at one point to take a short bus ride -- the first of his presidency -- with a group of young people.
Mr. Clinton said he chose New Jersey as the place to unveil his national service plan in part to highlight youth programs begun by Democratic Gov. James J. Florio, a Clinton ally who is up for re-election this fall.
Mr. Clinton's promise to make a college education affordable for everyone was one of the most popular lines in his campaign speeches.
The Clinton plan calls for $7.4 billion in new federal spending over four years. Almost half the amount -- $3.4 billion -- would be requested for the fourth year of the program.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, one of several members of Congress on hand for the president's address, predicted the proposal would get a positive reception in Congress. The greatest hurdle it faces is "the cost, obviously," he said.
Under the president's proposal, students who do not perform voluntary service would still be eligible to finance their education through a program of "income-contingent" college loans. Repayment would be tied to the ability to pay to encourage graduates to take lower-paying jobs.
Mr. Clinton, who made the college loan proposal a centerpiece of his middle-class campaign message last year, broadened the program yesterday to include high school seniors.
During the Rutgers speech, he announced plans for a "summer of service" pilot project that could involve about 1,000 of this year's 2 million high school seniors at a cost of $15 million.
Participants in the program will be paid the minimum wage, plus a $1,000 end-of-summer bonus to be used for education or job training, to work in health or education programs for poor children. They will also take part with Mr. Clinton in a late summer "Youth Service Summit."
Mr. Clinton invited those who would like to be considered for the pilot program to send him a postcard at the White House, marked "National Service" He also asked his listeners to write by Friday about the sorts of volunteer programs the government ought to be funding.