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Why 'togetherness' is a cornerstone for Clinton

After the Littleton, Colo., shootings, a resolute President Clinton stood in the Rose Garden and implored students across America to break down the walls of cliques because, after all, they are "all on the same journey."

He pounds a similar theme - the need to respect people's differences - on the unrelated topic of Kosovo. He calls it a test for strengthening global "tolerance."

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This is the diversity president speaking, a man who sees nearly every issue - at home and abroad - through the prism of multiculturalism.

Throughout his term in office, and especially in times of crisis, Clinton the Communicator has returned again and again to his theme that people need to overcome their fear of one another. While tolerance and inclusion are touted by most modern American presidents, Mr. Clinton brings a new dimension to the dialogue.

"The newness is in taking the American vision of multiculturalism, multiethnicity, and saying that this is a requirement for any good society," says Charles Keely, a professor at Georgetown University here who specializes in nationalism.

He sees this as a step beyond America's historic support for self-determination. In the Clinton view, Mr. Keely says, people have the added responsibility of learning to live with one another and not settling their differences by simply breaking away and forming their own countries.

It is a perspective that reaches back to Clinton's Arkansas boyhood, and forward into the next millennium. The president has identified dealing with societal differences as one of the great challenges of the 21st century.

Political observers see Clinton's multicultural leanings as a variation on the themes espoused by other Democratic chief executives from the South, such as Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights president, or Jimmy Carter, the peacemaker president and human rights advocate.

A more subtle challenge

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But Clinton has a different challenge here at home than did, say, President Johnson. The obvious work that needed to be done in the 1960s - ending segregation and instituting equal rights - is largely over.

Clinton's task is much more subtle, says Joyce Ladner, a diversity specialist at the Brookings Institution here. "It's different. What he's asking is for people to behave in a different way," she says.

But as Littleton and Kosovo show, it's tough to turn a Rodney-King-like plea - "can't we just all get along" - into policies with impact. Government can't make Americans - or anyone else - get along with one another.

As a result, Clinton's initiative to open a "national dialogue" on race and his appointments of a record number of women and minorities to government posts can be seen as setting a good example - but nothing more.

Abroad, some places simply aren't interested in Clinton's message of tolerance. China, much of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans are some of the regions ignoring the president's pleas.

"Bill Clinton has not figured out how to make [his ideas on diversity] operational," says Allan Lichtman, a civil rights specialist at American University here.

But observers and presidential aides are sure of one thing: Clinton's devotion to this issue is genuine and deep-seated.

Like Johnson and Carter, Clinton is a Southern Democrat familiar with one piece of the diversity mosaic: racism. In his hometown of Hope, Ark., Clinton's grandfather ran a grocery on the edge of "Colored Town," serving blacks and whites alike - one of the most integrated local businesses.

In college, young Clinton toured the Mississippi Delta as a driver in Frank Holt's campaign for Arkansas governor, writes Clinton biographer David Maraniss. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw restrooms and waiting rooms still marked Colored and White. It made me so sick to my stomach," Clinton wrote to his girlfriend.

When he taught law at Arkansas University Law School, black students there called him "wonder boy," not only because he publicly renounced racism, but also because he tutored and mentored many of them, helping to keep them off academic probation.

The president's aides acknowledge it's not easy to translate their boss's vision into changes in the way people relate to one another. This is why, while Clinton continues to use the bully pulpit, the administration is focused more on creating conditions of equal opportunity that may reduce motivation for class or ethnic strife.

"He believes that if you can make it so that every child really has a valid opportunity, you'll reach a point in which you start to do away with those color lines, those prejudices," says Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff at the White House. She points to education programs, as well as the strong economy, which has helped to cut the jobless rate for African-Americans almost in half since Clinton took office in January 1993. Improvement for Hispanics is almost as good: 11.3 percent then versus 6.9 percent now.

A hard sell abroad

Much less quantifiable are the president's efforts on the foreign front. With a new prime minister in Israel, the opportunity for reviving the Middle East peace effort is vastly improved. But other areas where Clinton has been involved - notably Northern Ireland - are still unsteady. In Bosnia, while there's peace, there's also ethnic separation - not exactly Clinton's ideal of multiethnicity.

Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, characterizes Clinton's attitude on Kosovo as "immense naivete." It's not possible, he says, to impose his template of diversity on regions that aren't ready for it.

The president argues differently: It is not the people of Kosovo who reject togetherness, but one man, Slobodan Milosevic.

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