Race, pardons, and a small boy from Cuba

As he begins his final year in office, President Clinton expounds on

President Clinton, in his most extensive comments yet on the tangled case of Elian Gonzalez, emphasized the importance of family unity - even when it means returning children to countries where "we don't like the government."

He implicitly warned Congress not to make a special grant of American citizenship to the six-year-old to keep him in this country - a move that could set up the first showdown of 2000 between the White House and Capitol Hill.

With his remarks, he threw the full weight of his office behind the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which has ruled Elian should return to his father in Cuba.

The president outlined his views in an interview with the Monitor while on an anticrime visit to Boston this week. Relaxed and talkative after a breakfast of "good grits" at Mike's City Diner earlier in the day, Mr. Clinton covered an array of topics - from cyberwarfare to forgiveness.

Alternatively pensive and impassioned in the 50-minute interview, sitting cross-legged one moment and stirring the air with his fingers the next, Clinton:

*Suggested that the White House will eventually issue an executive order to "get rid of" racial profiling by federal law-enforcement authorities.

*Cited learning in the past two years of the importance of forgiving others - even to "seventy times seven," as the Bible puts it - if he expects to be forgiven.

*Noted that his 2001 budget, due out Feb. 7, will move the nation toward eliminating the $5.7 trillion national debt in 15 years.

*Intimated that he will look to grant more pardons this year, despite the controversy that erupted over the clemency he gave several Puerto Rican nationalists last fall.

*Said he was "profoundly" grateful to the press for generally leaving his daughter alone during the first family's tenure at the White House.

Until now, the president has said little on Elian's case, except that he supports the INS decision to send the boy back to Cuba.

But he made it clear he puts reuniting the Gonzalez family above the political question of which country would offer the most opportunity for the boy, whom he said could be only "dimly aware" of the "scars from his mother's death."

"We need to think long and hard whether we're going to take the position that any person who comes to our shores who is a minor, any minor child who loses his or her parents, should never be sent home to another parent - even if that parent is capable of doing a very good job - if we don't like the government of the country where the people lived."

If lawmakers disagree with the INS decision, he said, the place to fight it is in federal court - not with special legislation to make Elian a US citizen.

Citizenship, he said, "would irrevocably lead people to the conclusion that this was much more about politics than it was whether that little boy ought to be taken away from his father."

But Clinton also had harsh words for Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "I think the way he has attempted to politicize this is also terrible," he said, adding that, generally, Cuba has "blown every conceivable opportunity to get closer to the United States."

Diligence on race relations

Since he first took office, the president has put improving race relations high on his agenda. While the living standards of minorities have improved with the strong economy, he disputed the premise that attitudes about race remain largely unchanged.

One example he pointed to was the recent reaction to Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, whose disparaging comments about New York City's homosexual, minority, and immigrant populations kicked up a racial dust storm. "The unfortunate comments that the Atlanta baseball player made - that's really troubling. On the other hand, the fact that Hank Aaron and Andy Young met with him is encouraging," the president said.

Clinton called the fight against racism "the sort of work that may never be done," but said he needs to keep highlighting the issue, working to reduce the economic and education gaps between whites and minorities. He also called for more "vigorous law enforcement."

Along those lines, Clinton later said he was "very sympathetic" with the call to get rid of racial profiling - the practice by law-enforcement authorities of targeting someone based on their race.

The issue surfaced this week at a Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, when former Sen. Bill Bradley challenged Vice President Al Gore to "walk down the hall" and ask the president to sign an executive order outlawing the practice.

Clinton suggested it isn't that easy - "there are a lot of practical questions" involved. At the US border, for instance, "is it profiling or not if we stop every third car to check for drugs when 90 percent of the people coming over ... are Hispanic? The truth is, we don't know the answer to any of that."

After his administration has collected data and released its findings, "then [we'll] craft an order to get rid of it that reflects the need for the agencies to do a certain job for the American people, and the need to avoid racial discrimination," he said.

His ingredients for spiritual growth

When asked about his own spiritual growth over the past two years, Clinton paused for a moment and grew pensive.

Hand to his head, he began with the caveat that Christ Jesus teaches one to pray in secret and not on the street corner, and that a person in public life should address such a question with "some amount of humility and reluctance."

He then said that all his life, but most recently in the last two years, "the thing I have really had to work on is trying to gain some spiritual anchor that will enable me to give up resentments and disappointments and anger - and to understand that, in seeking forgiveness, I had to learn to forgive." Asking for forgiveness, "is easy," he added, but "it can't count unless you can give it as well as ask for it."

Clinton noted that, as he's gotten older, he's learned that the key to growth is "letting things go." "I used to see life as a struggle for always learning more things, cramming more things in my head, anywhere I could do more things ... Now I see the search for wisdom and strength is also a process of letting go. A lot of things you have to let go."

Promise of a 'big' last year

Clearly sensitive to the tag of being a lame duck, Clinton said the agenda for his final year in office will be the "most ambitious" since his first 12 months. He hinted there would be a "couple of things" new in his State of the Union address next week, but wouldn't say what they were.

He did say, as part of his budget, he would deliver a plan that would avoid spending the Social Security surplus, get the country out of debt in 15 years, invest in programs that Congress approved last year, and still provide a modest tax cut.

Clinton defended his "incremental" approach to governing, saying that small steps had led to "big change" over time. He cited welfare reform and back-to-back budget surpluses. "You take it in small steps, but if you keep walking in the same direction, all of a sudden your steps constitute a giant leap forward."

Among other issues the president touched on:

*Pardons. Clinton touched off a firestorm last year when he granted clemency to 16 Puerto Rican FALN nationalists. The president said he believes a chief executive should rarely commute sentences, overturning the work of judge and jury. But he has no regret in the case of the FALN terrorists.

Despite the move, he has issued fewer pardons and commutations than any chief executive in modern history, a fact even he did not realize until then-White House Counsel Charles Ruff began digging into the FALN case. He did suggest, though, that he might exercise the power more frequently in his final year in office.

"The president should be more forthcoming in being willing to grant pardons," he said.

*Cybersecurity. In recent months, China has signaled its willingness to use the Internet as a future venue of war. The US, for its part, has issued a report outlining steps to protect critical systems in this country from online threats.

Despite the rising concern about an emerging "cool war" in cyberspace, Clinton said a more real threat would come from "terrorists, organized criminals, and narco-traffickers than other countries."

*Chelsea. Early in the Clinton presidency, an unwritten understanding existed between the mainstream press and the first family to keep Chelsea out of the media spotlight. "First kids" have at times encountered difficulty with the hot-house environment the White House creates.

When asked about how the media have done, Clinton said it's impossible these days to identify "the press" and that it will be harder in the days to come to do so given the blurring of lines between communication, entertainment, and journalism. But with few exceptions, he said, "the press has been willing to let my daughter have her life and try to grow up and deal with all the challenges that entails."

*For a complete transcript of the interview, visit our Web site at csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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