WASHINGTON -- In a rambling hourlong address, President Clinton issued yesterday a plea for "more conversation and less combat" in the body politic, saying that citizens and their elected leaders ought to soften their rhetoric and limit their partisanship in a search for "common ground."
For starters, he offered to hold more bipartisan forums with his political opponents like the "town hall" meeting he held last month in New Hampshire with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "I'm willing if they are," he said.
But he also outlined some of his differences with Republicans, saying gun owners who oppose the assault-weapons ban ought to just "shoot with something else" and taking exception to Sen. Jesse Helms' comments on AIDS. The North Carolinian called for reducing federal funding for AIDS programs because he said acquired immune deficiency syndrome was transmitted by "revolting" and "unnatural" conduct.
Mr. Clinton noted that some people with AIDS caught it through blood transfusions, not personal behavior, and said even those who contracted it through homosexual conduct or drug abuse "are still our sons, our brothers, our cousins," and deserve help.
The speech at Georgetown University, his alma mater, was quintessential Clinton -- long, philosophical and sometimes unfocused, discoursing on the lessons of the '60s, '70s and '80s, and quoting everyone from Thomas Jefferson to the movie "Apollo 13." There were echoes of his call for a "New Covenant" between voters and government, unveiled in a speech at Georgetown before the 1992 campaign.
This address, outlining in sweeping terms his vision for the country, also was designed to strike a theme for the 1996 campaign. It reflected advice from Dick Morris, the controversial Connecticut-based pollster who in recent months has become Mr. Clinton's most powerful adviser, to reject traditional Democratic political strategies.
Instead, Mr. Morris reportedly has advocated an approach he calls "triangulation," with Mr. Clinton keeping both Republicans and congressional Democrats at arm's length as he rises above partisanship to seek solutions in the national interest.
Originally, the White House had planned to hold a daylong conference on civic responsibility, but that idea was shelved in favor of the speech to an invited audience of business, labor, government, news media and academic leaders. Prompted in part by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's attack on Hollywood for corroding values, Mr. Clinton took a much broader view.
The "middle-class dreams and middle-class values" that were once taken for granted are now at risk, he warned, as a new economy has stalled family incomes, widened economic disparities and increased job insecurities. That has frightened many citizens into harsher attitudes and harder rhetoric that he said undercut the nation's ability to solve its problems.
"I believe that a democracy requires a certain amount of common ground," he said. "I do not believe you can solve complex questions like this at the grass-roots level or at the national level or anywhere in between if you have too much extremism of rhetoric and excessive partisanship."
In one of only a few partisan comments, the president took issue with Mr. Helms for proposing a cut in federal AIDS funding because of the personal behavior that might lead to the disease.
"You know, smoking causes lung cancer," Mr. Clinton said, "but we don't propose to stop treating lung cancer or stop doing research to find a cure, right?"
But at a breakfast with reporters, Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour backed up Mr. Helms, saying that "virtually every AIDS case in the United States" had been transmitted by homosexual contact or drug use with contaminated needles. He said AIDS funding should be subject to the same budget cuts as any other federal program.