WASHINGTON -- President Clinton offered yesterday an articulate defense of affirmative action and an extensive explanation of his review of existing federal programs to determine whether to drop some preferences based on race or sex.
Mr. Clinton said he wanted to find out which programs work, whether some might have resulted in reverse discrimination, and whether low-income groups are adequately covered by preferential treatment for women and minorities in hiring, promotion and government contracts.
Over all, he argued, such programs have greatly benefited American society since the mid-1960s.
"I'm against discrimination," Mr. Clinton told a group of college newspaper reporters in a question-and-answer session at the White House. "I'm against giving people opportunities who are unqualified. But we all have an interest -- including white males -- in developing the capacities of all of us to relate to one another, because our economy will grow quicker, it'll be stronger. And in a global society, our diversity is our greatest asset.
"We must not let this debate be another cheap political wedge issue to divide the American electorate."
Mr. Clinton also sharpened his vow to oppose Republican efforts to cut back college loan programs, saying, "The veto pen is always there."
Since Mr. Clinton announced the review of affirmative action last PTC month in response to Republican calls to roll back preference programs, the White House has been under growing pressure from historically Democratic constituencies such as blacks and women's groups to explain its purpose and to resist backing away from such programs.
Deval L. Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, is to testify today at a House subcommittee hearing on the subject. The White House had said for days that Mr. Clinton would find an opportunity before then to outline his views, and he took the occasion of a news conference with about 100 college journalists in the East Room to do so.