WASHINGTON -- Early one morning in August, senior White House aides went to the morning staff meeting in the Oval Office to find President Clinton in a depressed and angry mood. Like most Washingtonians, Mr. Clinton was dismayed by news reports of a gunman who had calmly opened fire on children cavorting at a community swimming pool.
"What kind of country is it where on a hot summer day, kids can't even go to the neighborhood poolwithout being shot at?" a distraught Mr. Clinton asked his aides.
In recent weeks, Mr. Clinton has started to sound positively Republican in his desire to talk tough on crime.
"It's getting hard to find a family that hasn't been touched by this epidemic of violence," he said in his Saturday radio address.
Mr. Clinton has been criticized for pushing too many issues at once, but top White House aides say he believes reducing violent crime is related to his push for health care reform and boosting the economy.
A lack of employment opportunities in U.S. cities makes the lure of youth gangs stronger, while businesses are reluctant to locate in inner cities because crime has made so many neighborhoods too dangerous. Urban shootings also have created a crisis for hospital emergency rooms in the inner cities, costing the health care system $4 billion each year, Mr. Clinton maintains. Tonight, aides said, Mr. Clinton will give a speech in North Carolina outlining his vision of a nation where "job security" goes hand in hand with "health security" and "personal security."
"They are all related," said White House communications director Mark Gearan.
While some critics will find it a bit of a reach to link such disparate administration initiatives as health care reform with the administration- sponsoredcrime legislation now in Congress, there is little doubt that the public is demanding a federal response to the violent crime rate.
Although the United States is at the peak of a virtually unbroken 30-year epidemic of violent crime, for most of that time nationally prominent Democrats have tended to shy away from the issue.
The reasons have varied: Voters often found the Democratic Party too eager to embrace gun control and too squeamish about capital punishment. The party also was reluctant to take on an issue with racial overtones.
In fact, any time Republican presidential candidates even brought up crime, prominent Democrats were quick to accuse them of secretly appealing to racial fears. This attitude was prevalent even in election campaigns last year, when many national Democratic leaders went so far as to insist that crime is not really a federal government issue at all.
As president, Mr. Clinton has learned from his own pollsters that in the public's mind crime is very much a national problem and that a president who downplays it ignores what has become a pervasive and ever-present fear.
Mr. Clinton's secret may be simply that he sees that the great traditional liberal solutions for crime aren't in conflict with the great conservative solutions.
The president, for instance, is a firm advocate of the longtime liberals' call for stricter gun control laws.
"Here in Washington recently, a beautiful 4-year-old girl was caught in the line of fire, and she died from a bullet wound," the president said Saturday. "Her name was Launice Smith. All she was doing was watching other children at play. How did that become the wrong place at the wrong time? The fact is, with so many handguns and assault weapons flooding our streets, a lot of places can be the wrong place at the wrong time."
But Mr. Clinton also continues to advocate the use of capital punishment -- a solid conservative position.
The crime bill that Mr. Clinton is pushing is a combination of conservative and liberal ideas. Its provisions range from expanding the death penalty to streamlining defendants' access endless appeals to ensuring that convicted criminals get treatment for their drug addictions.
But its major focus is in the following three areas:
* Putting more police officers on the street and helping cities and counties implement "community policing" techniques. The idea
is to get more officers out of precinct offices and onto neighborhood beats, sometimes in old-fashion foot patrols, and to have them enlist the aid and support of law-abiding citizens. Mr. Clinton's proposals calls for putting an additional 50,000 officers in the field by 1996 -- half the goal he stated when he ran for president last year.
"This is the top priority," says Bruce Reed a key White House domestic policy adviser.
* Assisting states to deal more effectively with youthful offenders. Because there are not adequate facilities to incarcerate, hospitalize or even detain increasingly violent young lawbreakers, states often face the choice of either locking them up with older criminals, which tends to make them even tougher, or letting them go, which generally results in their continuing to commit crimes.
The crime bill has a "certainty of punishment" provision while also offering states money for "boot camps" and other alternative methods of dealing with young offenders.
* Tightening gun control laws. The Clinton administration's proposals include a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases, background checks for buyers of firearms and a ban on assault weapons, such as machine guns.
"On school grounds, on streets, in parking lots and homes . . . the silliest of arguments -- arguments that might have ended in a fistfight in bygone days -- now too easily end with the sound of a gun," the president said.
"Clearly, larger forces have gone amiss in our society," said Mr. Reed. "And a few pieces of legislation, no matter how dramatic, can't turn this around overnight. But I think we can make a difference. And you've got to do what you can."