Comeback Kid Comes `Home'

`Whitewater is for canoeing and rafting,' a lady tells the president, and the crowd roars approval

NASHUA Mayor Rob Wagner (D) found out that the president of the United States was coming to town six days before the visit. The New Hampshire State Police found out two days later, but weren't told the site. On P-Day minus three, the Nashua Telegraph described the planned March 15 ``town meeting'' with President Clinton as an ``everyone is invited'' affair. But by the next day, the White House had insisted that the meeting be restricted to 1,200 people, admitted by ticket only.

That wasn't all. The White House wanted three backdrops for television cameras: The giant American flag was no problem - the local Burger King had the biggest flag in town (12 by 15 feet) and was happy to oblige. The New Hampshire state flag came from Storyland theme park in Bartlett. But the ``New Hampshire Town Meeting'' banner had to be made over the weekend by the fire chief's wife.

The race for tickets was the last problem. The mayor instructed his staff to answer the phone, ``Ticketron.'' But he had only 200 tickets to distribute, and the White House requested they go to senior citizens. Clinton aides asked that 300 go to Nashua school students, and the rest to those who had ``been supportive,'' written to the president or Rep. Dick Swett (D) of New Hampshire, or represented a ``good cross section of the community.''

Sunset Heights Elementary School Principal Bob Bettencourt didn't know he had tickets for 16 of his students until after 10 p.m. the night before the event. Waiting in the bleachers for the president to arrive, sixth grader Danielle Zielie said she wanted to be a leader but ``not the president.''

``I'd rather be vice president,'' she said. ``Because once a rumor goes around, everyone starts to believe it. I don't want people going around spreading rumors about me.''

Nashua has been a good place to set rumors aside for this president. Candidate Clinton announced his run for president here, and he credits an overflow rally in the city with giving his ``comeback kid'' primary bid a boost after rumors of marital infidelity threatened to derail it. The city told him what he wanted to hear again this week.

``Whitewater is for canoeing and rafting,'' said senior citizen Betty Winberg, to a roar of approval. ``And shame on those who would distract you from the work you're doing with universal health coverage and jobs.''

Members of the Washington press corps moved quickly to question the woman in a striped tee-shirt. ``Who are you?'' and ``Did anyone tell you to say that?''

But in a telephone interview after the event, the retired Digital employee insisted her words were her own. She says that she sees many people who have lost health insurance in her work as a volunteer at a clinic.

``The farther you get from the Beltway, the more you realize how trivial the Whitewater affair is,'' she said. ``During the campaign, people said, `It's the economy, Stupid!' It's still the economy, jobs, health care. It hurts me to see emphasis taken away from things that matter.''

The president was more blunt. When the first lady visited Boulder, Colo., he said, students held up a huge banner that said: Give 'em health, Hillary! ``Make no mistake about it,'' he said. ``Some of the people who are giving me hell in Washington are doing it so I can't give you health. But I'm going to try to give you health and take whatever it is they want to give me in return.''

``I guess you have to be under a microscope, it's such a very, very important job,'' said Nashua resident John Manning after the meeting. ``But did you hear what he said? He's playing God. He's going to give us everything, even our health.''

``Well,'' he adds,``maybe it's out of a sense of compassion.''

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