SELMA, Calif. -- Eighth-graders at Abraham Lincoln Middle School had a substitute teacher yesterday on their first day of school: President Clinton.
He sat on a desk in front of the classroom, with a U.S. map to his left and a world map to his right, gave his own brief review of U.S. history, and fielded their questions.
They weren't exactly the kind of hard-hitting queries usually thrown at him by the White House press corps, but Mr. Clinton treated them with respect.
His theme was simple: Education is the key to America's economic future in the 21st century. It just so happens that this is also a key theme for his 1996 re-election effort, but the students didn't seem to feel they were being used as campaign props.
Mr. Clinton urged them to be tolerant of other races and ethnic groups, adding that if all Americans do, it will give the United States a huge economic advantage over countries that "find it impossible to bury the hatchet."
He said his hardest decisions involved the 1994 deficit-reduction bill, which he pushed through with no Republican support, and Bosnia.
On the deficit measure, he said: "I went to Washington determined to work with Democrats and Republicans. And I was shocked to find out how partisan it was."
The decision to commit U.S. forces to bomb Serbian targets in Bosnia was tough because "it's hard for us when we're the strongest country in the world, when other countries don't do what we think they should do. And we have no way to make them do it because we didn't have the soldiers there."
And, he said, "When our soldiers were killed in Somalia, it was the darkest day of my presidency for me."
Some decisions turn out bad, some good, he said, and he urged the students to "keep going. You have to believe in yourself."
One student wanted to know if he ever thought about being president when he was young. "I did," Mr. Clinton said. "I guess when I met President Kennedy I thought about it, but it wasn't that I really thought it would happen."
He met Kennedy as a high school student on a trip to Boys Nation. "It was an incredible experience," he said, adding that he was able to shake Kennedy's hand partly because of his size. "I could sort of elbow my way to the front of the line."
Asked about his most important accomplishment, Mr. Clinton listed one atop all the legislation he has pushed through Congress: "I think the most important thing I've done in office is to basically make the presidency a place where problems are dealt with again."
Presidential press secretary Michael McCurry said later that Mr. Clinton's appearance was partly an answer to Sen. Robert Dole's call to end bilingual education, which the Kansas Republican proposed in a speech Monday.
Mr. McCurry noted that the class taught by the president was ethnically diverse.
In many such classes, he said, many students can learn math and other subjects better when taught in their own languages.
Mr. Clinton wound up a 22-day trip, the longest of his presidency, in this agricultural region in California's Central Valley. He'll be on the road again next week, in Carbondale, Ill., where he will again speak about education.