On the first frigid day of winter, President Clinton received a warm welcome yesterday in Baltimore as Maryland's Democratic political establishment came out to urge their president to stay the course on his policies, remain at the nation's helm and unite a deeply divided country.
The president's speech on homelessness, and announcement of million for homeless programs in Maryland, came during his first foray outside Washington since he was impeached Saturday on charges of lying before a federal grand jury and obstructing justice to conceal his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The well-mannered crowd at the Boys & Girls Club gym on East Fayette Street gave Clinton an affectionate reception, with a standing ovation that might have gone on longer had Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke not quieted the crowd.
At the same time, no cheering throngs lined the streets, and only a smattering of demonstrators turned up to hail Clinton's impeachment or denounce it.
The president could take heart in the unequivocal statements of support by Maryland's Democratic elite, which at times has kept Clinton at arm's length during a scandal that threatens to end his presidency.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the president's on-again, off-again ally, appeared to be firmly on again. Schmoke and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore showed up to voice their support, as did Maryland's Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, who could serve as jurors as soon as next month in a landmark impeachment trial in the Senate.
"Mr. President, we fervently hope that the entire country will come together in this season of tolerance and compassion," Glendening said as the crowd cheered. "The divisiveness we have seen in these past few weeks is unhealthy for our country and our democracy. We need you at the helm."
Schmoke said he could only shake his head ruefully at the political firestorm in Washington that yielded the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history.
"There are so many things I can say about what's going on in
Washington, but I won't," the mayor said. "I just give thanks for Bill Clinton."
It was precisely what White House aides had in mind when they organized the quick trip out of Washington. Even if not greeted by Baltimore as a conquering hero, Clinton hoped he had taken a tentative step toward asserting his leadership at a time of grave peril for his presidency.
The day had started unpromisingly, when the president's limousine broke down as it pulled away from the White House. But when Marine One touched down on a wind-swept field at Fort McHenry at 10:55 a.m., an hour late, Clinton had landed in territory far more hospitable than the frigid capital he had just left.
"When we are told we should count our blessings, one of the things that has been a great blessing for me in the last six years as president has been my proximity to, and involvement with, the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland," Clinton told the cheering crowd.
In return, Clinton gave the Baltimore faithful what they wanted: an extended address on the perils of homelessness and the money to back up his solutions.
The president announced $850 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help more than 330,000 homeless people obtain housing, drug treatment, job training and child care. About $17 million of that money will go to Maryland, with more than $8 million targeted for Baltimore.
Clinton also promised to seek more than $1.1 billion in his fiscal 2000 budget for homeless assistance, a record request that would be 15 percent higher than this year's level.
The president's focus on the gritty, real-life issue of homelessness was a welcome departure from the incessant talk of impeachment -- for Clinton and his scandal-weary audience.
Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III hailed the president's comments: "I said to my staff a couple of times, 'They get it. They really get it.'
"One of the biggest myths about homelessness is that people are homeless because they lack a roof over their heads," he added. "People are homeless because they have problems -- from not being able to budget money to substance abuse."
Outside the warm and crowded gym, a few protesters did not let Clinton escape what Cummings delicately called his "personal difficulties." One sign read simply: "Senators, Do Your Duty. Convict Clinton."
But far more demonstrators toted "Baltimore Supports President Clinton" signs. The Greater Baltimore Medical Center sported a banner with bold black letters proclaiming, "GBMC Weinberg Health Center Welcomes President Clinton to Baltimore."
Susan Glick of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County stood shivering in a line wrapping around the Boys & Girls Club building. On one of the coldest days of the season, Glick hoped that the president's visit would turn attention away from Washington's woes to the national problem of homelessness.
"The programs and the people who need the funding couldn't care less about impeachment," Glick said. "They're worlds away."
Inside, the cold lingered in the thick handshake of the Rev. George Cockrell, pastor of Old Landmark Baptist Church. Sitting on bleachers under a basketball goal waiting for the president's arrival, the 70-year-old tried to explain Baltimore's unwavering support for the president.
"He has a genuine feeling for the less fortunate," Cockrell said. "He's not God. What could I say about him that he couldn't say about me if he looked in my closet?"
But yesterday, Baltimore was not a city suffused with unanimous support for the president or scorn for the actions of Congress. Instead, it seemed ambivalent.
Brian Sproul, an Air Force officer who brought his sons John, 5, and Chris, 3, to watch Clinton's motorcade zoom by, said he was frustrated with the president and with the news media for prolonging the issue.
"He's doing his job well," Sproul said, watching the presidential limo with his boys on the way to lunch at Cross Street Market. "I think we all need to move on. The one good thing is that my sons still get excited watching the president drive by. That's something."
The ears of Stephan G. Fugate, president of Baltimore Fire Officers Association Local 964, had turned fire engine red well before the president's arrival, as he stood outside the gymnasium. A registered Republican, he said he was attending the speech because he was asked to, as head of the union local.
"He is still the president," Fugate conceded but then referred to the president with an expletive.
It was just such hostility that Glendening appealed to Clinton to heal. Yet it is not clear that Clinton has the power to do so anymore. Clinton never mentioned his impeachment or possible Senate trial yesterday, but he quietly appealed to both sides of the political divide to try to find a way out of the hostilities gripping Washington.
"We can differ on a lot of things, about what's the best way to do this, the best way to do that or the other thing," Clinton told a rapt audience. "But if we ever forget that what we have in common is far more fundamental than all these things that we differentiate among ourselves, we have forgotten the most important thing.
"Whatever the different circumstances of your life are, inside each of us there is a core that is the same, and not one person is better than another."
Pub Date: 12/24/98