WASHINGTON -- In a Democrat's answer to the conservative William J. Bennett's best-seller, "Book of Virtues," President Clinton has embarked on a little-noticed series of speeches about values calculated to prompt a national dialogue about personal responsibility, particularly among young people.
"The unifying theme is the responsibility all American citizens have to extend to the next generation of Americans the lessons, the enduring values of what it means to be Americans," said Donald A. Baer, the chief White House speech writer.
Mr. Baer is overseeing the effort, editing each of the speeches to make sure the thread of the values theme is carried through.
Last night, Mr. Clinton, at a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's civil rights decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, said: "The essence of unity is the acceptance of diversity.
"Diversity is not an end in itself. . . . It is simply the only way we can build in a free society a larger community to which everyone belongs," he told supporters of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Today, the president will teach a combined history and English class at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville. The subject again is Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 school desegregation case.
"The president believes the importance of that decision is something that could get lost unless this generation of students knows about it," Mr. Baer said.
Accompanying the president will be an illustrious group of teacher's-aides-for-a-day: Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, who was a civil rights lawyer in Greenville, S.C., long before that was fashionable in the South; Thurgood Marshall Jr., a member of the vice president's staff and the son and namesake of the NAACP lawyer (and, later, Supreme Court justice) who handled the Brown case; and Ernest Green, a friend of the president who was one of the seven black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. -- with the help of federal troops -- in 1957.
Stitching together language from themes he has mentioned in campaign speeches, major addresses and town meetings for the past two years, the president began his series of talks on values Friday at the commencement address at Gallaudet College in Washington, a school for deaf students that was started by Abraham Lincoln.
There, Mr. Clinton spoke about the obligation that leaders of his generation have to the nation's young people -- but also about the obligations young people have to serve a common good. He singled out four members of Gallaudet's senior class who have enrolled in the president's National Service Program.
"By committing yourselves to rebuild our nation, by exercising your freedom and your responsibility to give something back to your country and earning something for [your] education in return, you have embodied the renewal that America must seek," he said.
Mr. Clinton ended his address by invoking an emotion not often touched on by presidents -- love.
"Finally, let me just say today a personal word," he said. "A few days ago, when we celebrated Mother's Day, it was my first Mother's Day without my mother. And so, I have been thinking about what I should say to all of you, those of you who are lucky enough still to have your parents, and, perhaps, some of you who do not.
"On graduations, it is important for us to remember that none of us ever achieves anything alone. I dare say as difficult as your lives have been, you are here today not only because of your own courage and your own effort, but because someone loved you and believed in you and helped you along the way. I hope today that you will thank them and love them and, in so doing, remember that all across this country, perhaps our biggest problem is that there are too many children, most of who can hear just fine, who never hear the kind of love and support that every person needs. And we must commit ourselves to giving that to those children."
The next day, the president's weekly radio address was broadcast from Mount Helm Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis, where in 1968 Robert F. Kennedy calmed a crowd of blacks left grief-stricken and angry by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Clinton used that backdrop as a plea for racial harmony and delivered the kind of message often given by conservatives, saying: "In the end, all our progress as a nation depends more on the attitudes and the values of our citizens than the actions of our government."
Later, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King-Robert Kennedy statue in Indianapolis, Mr. Clinton amplified those themes. He lauded developments in South Africa and in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, and lamented walls that have arisen in the United States.
"If you preach hate, you can get a talk show" the president said. "If you preach love, you'll get a yawn."
That line was widely quoted. But in two that were not, the president used religious language and references more
evocative of Lincoln than of modern political dialogue. When he took the stage, it was raining -- and Mr. Clinton handled it this way: "Ladies and gentlemen, now we're all being tested . . . [but] those of us who grew up in farming areas know that the rain is a gift from God. It's going to help us all grow a little."
Later, he spoke of miracles.
"We have witnessed a miracle in South Africa," he said. "What you saw in Robert Kennedy's speech was a miracle that night. He was advised not to come here. The police said, 'We're worried about your safety.' Cities all over America erupted in flames when Dr. King was killed. But a miracle occurred here in Indianapolis. The city did not burn, because people's hearts were touched. Miracles begin with personal choices."
In speaking as such, Mr. Clinton has been using the presidency not as a bully pulpit but as a traditional pulpit. One West Wing official said yesterday that the president's advisers believe he is at his best talking this way, and that if he steals some of Mr. Bennett's or other conservatives' pet issues, so much the better.
"It's from his heart," one official said. "That's why it works."
"Values, values, values," Mr. Bennett said in an interview yesterday, characterizing Mr. Clinton's recent speeches. "I don't know if this is a tribute to "The Book of Virtues," but he's a good politician, one of the best, and he has a very good ear for what people are saying and thinking in their own lives."
Mr. Baer said that the confluence of the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision, the elections in South Africa and the commencement season has more to do with this than does Mr. Bennett. "The president was talking about personal responsibility long before Bill Bennett wrote his book," Mr. Baer said.
Ah, but it wasn't his first book, Mr. Bennett pointed out.
"They've taken stuff from my old book, like saying the government doesn't raise children -- parents do," Mr. Bennett said, referring to "Our Country, Our Children," published when he was education secretary in President Ronald Reagan's administration.
Actually, Mr. Bennett sounds flattered. Besides, he can hardly sue for copyright infringement: His best-selling "Book of Virtues" is itself is an anthology of classics that illustrate different moral lessons, including compassion, honesty, friendship, and courage, drawn from sources ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare to Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."