Clinton, Bush talk transition


WASHINGTON - Eight years ago, it was an eager, less-gray Bill Clinton, about to become the nation's first baby boomer president, who visited the mansion that would soon become his home and met with the man he had ousted from office, President George Bush.

Yesterday, with a sense of symmetry and tradition, a son of that president, George W. Bush, made a back-to-the-future pilgrimage to the White House to meet with his father's rival and successor, and reclaim the torch.

If there was any feeling from Bush of settling old scores or avenging his father's defeat, there was no trace of it as the two men walked amiably down the colonnade, by the White House Rose Garden. They settled into the Oval Office for an hourlong talk followed by a 70-minute discussion over lunch in the residence.

Bush, who had pledged during his campaign to restore "honor and dignity" to the White House after eight years of Clinton, pronounced himself "grateful" for the president's hospitality.

"I've looked forward to the discussion," he told reporters as he and the president sat down in adjoining chairs to begin their chat. "I'm here to listen. And if the president is kind enough to offer some advice, if he is, I will take it in."

Clinton, who ushered his successor into the Oval Office with a pat on the back, said his only advice to Bush was to "get a good team and do what you think is right."

Capping his two-day victory lap in Washington, where the inaugural viewing stand was under construction outside the White House gate, Bush also met yesterday with Vice President Al Gore, the man he defeated in the disputed election.

Gore, who returned yesterday morning from a brief vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands, welcomed his former opponent to the vice president's mansion with a handshake, a pat on the back and a "How are you?"

"We're going to have a private discussion," Gore said when asked about his advice for Bush.

A handful of Gore supporters waited in the frosty weather for Bush's arrival, several of them waving such signs as "Hail to the Thief," a reminder that some Democrats believe Gore would have won the election if ballots had been recounted by hand in Florida.

The two men spent less than 15 minutes together in the vice presidential mansion that Gore will soon vacate before Bush headed for Dulles International Airport and the trip back to Austin, Texas.

Bush also spent some time yesterday interviewing possible Cabinet appointees, including Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, the leading candidate for secretary of health and human services.

The president-elect is expected to make official several Cabinet nominations today, including that of Texas oil executive Donald L. Evans, his longtime friend and campaign chairman, as commerce secretary.

Bush is also expected to name Mel Martinez, the chief executive of Orange County, Fla., as secretary of housing and urban development. Martinez is a former Cuban refugee who co-chaired Bush's Florida campaign and a close ally of Bush's brother Jeb, the Florida governor.

Ann Veneman, a former California agriculture director, will reportedly be nominated as agriculture secretary.

Other appointments are expected later in the week.

The roads that brought the Texas governor and the former Arkansas governor together yesterday for the symbolic changing of the guard were paved with sharp stones.

During this year's presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly vowed to "uphold the honor and dignity" of the Oval Office, a thinly veiled reference to Clinton's personal transgressions in office that led to his impeachment.

Clinton had mocked Bush's credentials for the presidency, saying, as if quoting Bush: "How bad could I be? I've been governor of Texas; my daddy was president; I own a baseball team."

And in the presidential race eight years earlier, Clinton had had harsh words for the senior Bush, portraying him as out of touch with the concerns of real Americans.

But yesterday, the two men seemed to put aside their adversarial history for what Bush called "a high-energy moment."

Clinton appeared more relaxed than Bush, who looked a bit nervous sitting with his feet planted firmly on the floor, hands folded in his lap and looking straight ahead.

No recession foreseen

When reporters asked him whether he thought he would be inheriting a recession from Clinton, he offered no comment. In the days before yesterday's visit, Bush has suggested that the nation might be on the brink of an energy crisis and an economic downturn. Clinton said he does not think a recession is on the horizon, but he did predict a period of slower economic growth ahead of about 2.5 percent or better, roughly half the average rate of recent years.

"We couldn't keep up 5 percent growth a year forever," Clinton said. "But I think there will be things to be managed. He'll have economic challenges."

The two also discussed international matters, including North Korea's missile program, over their lunch of squash soup, filet mignon, Greek salad and upside-down apple tart with maple ice cream.

Clinton said he had not decided whether to travel to North Korea in the countdown days of his presidency to try to help negotiate a deal to curb Pyongyang's missile program.

"This is something I want to consult with the president-elect and his team about, and we'll see what the facts are and I'll try to do what's best for the country," the president said.

Asked about the biggest problem facing the country today, Clinton laughed and replied, "He can talk about that." Then he paused and added, "I waited eight years to say that."

In Austin today, Bush is scheduled to meet with about 20 religious leaders from around the country, about one-third of them black, to discuss his plan for "faith-based" solutions to social problems.

Courting blacks

The meeting is part of Bush's effort to court blacks - who gave him the least support a presidential candidate had received since President Reagan's re-election 16 years ago - despite his campaign message of "compassionate conservatism."

Bush said he plans to establish an "office of faith-based action" in the White House to find ways for religious groups to deliver such services as drug treatment and welfare-to-work programs that have typically been provided by the federal government.

"He views this as the next step to welfare reform," said Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the transition.

Among those considered likely candidates to head that office is former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a top domestic policy adviser to Bush, who Fleischer said will be among the participants at today's meeting.

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