Politics, Business Mix At Clinton's Summit

The only ingredient missing from economic powwow was discernible dissent - a letter from Little Rock

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ARKANSAS' sleepy state capital, awakened during the campaign and electrified on election night, was transformed into a cross between a classroom and a boardroom on Dec. 14 and 15.

President-elect Clinton's two days of marathon meetings with corporate chief executives, university professors, industrialists, labor leaders, and social advocates covered subjects ranging from exports to education.

The televised forum allowed United States residents to tune in to a discussion of the nation's most pressing economic problems. And with carefully put-together sessions studded with Clinton-Gore devotees, conference organizers tried to galvanize the group of 326 conferees to support the future president's economic leadership.

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But in the seemingly endless hours of nonstop talking at the downtown conference hall, there was one glaring omission: any discernible dissent from the strategies Mr. Clinton has outlined.

Instead, there was a lot of back-patting between Clinton and his invited guests. The conference participants who appeared to be angling for political appointments in the new administration were especially enthusiastic. Others seemed enamored of the opportunity to try to mold domestic policy and rub shoulders with the next generation of Washington powerbrokers.

This, it seems, is the time for political wannabes. Banks of pay telephones - in locations ranging from Atlanta airport's Little Rock departure gate to the lobby of the local Excelsior Hotel - were jammed with important people making important telephone calls about their importance to the Clinton transition team.

But Arkansas' relaxed atmosphere may have tempered some summiteers' sense of self-importance. Unlike Washington, D.C., there is no limousine gridlock when a flood of dignitaries arrives. After the corporate jets and chartered flights made their way into the area, there were only a handful of limousines available to the corporate fat cats. The participants were housed in Little Rock's modest hotels and shuttled around the rainy city in vans.

Clinton and his Cabinet appointees were remarkably accessible to the hordes of well-wishers and journalists here - and they set an example for others to follow. Fortune 100 chief executives could hardly avoid mingling with the public when, for instance, Treasury Secretary-designate Lloyd Bentsen relaxed after dinner in a hotel lobby and chatted with reporters.

While the president-elect has touted these past two days as a useful step in the development of economic policy, many attendees credited him simply with a public-relations coup.

Indeed the nation's preeminent movers and shakers drew a hefty media response. More than 600 journalists came to this town, camera crews were set up at every turn, and the conference was carried live on two cable networks - CNN and C-SPAN.

True, the president-elect basked in the limelight, but he moved gracefully through a labyrinth of policy issues. His attention to the detailed discussions appeared to be unfaltering, observers noted; his questions often demonstrated a depth of knowledge well beyond political posturing. He synthesized information, refined arguments, supplied his own set of data - all seemingly spontaneously. The meeting's participants - Republicans and Democrats, skeptics and supporters - said they were impressed.

It remains to be seen, however, just how much access the summiteers will have once Clinton moves into the White House, where he may be distracted by a host of special interests. If nothing else, supporters argue, the summit held in Little Rock this week revealed the new president's level of interest in the nation's economy and his awareness of the many challenges of the 21st century. But skeptics note that Clinton's success in addressing complex problems depends on his ability to work in an arena that is

not always under his control.

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