Sunday, April 12, 1998
BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
We're not sure what Bill Clinton is running for, but the man is in full campaign mode.
It can't be for president; the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution took care of that a long time ago. Two terms and out.
But the fact that on Thursday he went deep into the heart of Kentucky's tobacco country -- one day after the big tobacco companies pulled out of a multibillion-dollar litigation settlement -- sure made it seem as if the president who feels your pain was running for something. Probably not governor of Kentucky.
The fact is, that election or no election, this president is a campaigner; it is what he does. And in Kentucky he showed that as long as he is in office, he will never stop campaigning.
Many political people, particularly Democrats, seemed to be in awe of the political "courage" it took for Mr. Clinton -- the man accused by the tobacco company executives of making the litigation settlement unbearable for the industry -- to take his anti-smoking campaign to Carrollton, Ky., 60 miles southwest of Cincinnati, where tobacco is king.
Right smack into the lion's den he went, to the Kentuckiana Tobacco Warehouse, where he soaked up some more pain as tobacco farmers poured out their hearts over what a punitive tobacco settlement would do to their family farms.
Then, across the road he went, to Carroll County High School, where he talked about the growing numbers of teen smokers and pleaded with about 2,200 students not to take up the filthy habit. Chances are no White House advance people pointed out to him that he was delivering his lecture in a high school where, in the boys' restroom, each and every urinal was clogged with cigarette butts.
Thursday's event had the feeling of a Clinton campaign event from 1992 or 1996. First, he was late in arriving, a hallmark of any Clinton campaign stop. Then, after speaking for 20 minutes in the high school gym, he stayed around for nearly half an hour working the rope line, shaking every hand in sight and driving the Secret Service, who wanted to get him back on the road and onto Air Force One, half insane.
Just like the good old days.
Much was made of the fact that the president would go into the home of the demon tobacco. An act of political courage.
But, in fact, it was nothing but a short wedge shot and birdie putt for the president.
All he had to do was go into Kentucky and provide some political cover for fellow Democrats like U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford and Gov. Paul Patton by repeatedly assuring the tobacco farmers that he would never sign legislation that would harm them.
If tobacco legislation ends up reducing the demand for tobacco, he said, the government will be there to help with crop conversion or whatever it takes.
Secondly, while he could tell the tobacco farmers that they are the salt of the earth, as figures who have stepped out of Grant Wood's "American Gothic," he could simultaneously paint the cigarette manufacturers as the guys wearing the black hats.
Most Americans would have no trouble taking a picture of someone like the chairman of RJR Nabisco or the president of Brown & Williamson and painting in horns and a pitchfork.
Nobody -- except maybe the 300 or so Brown & Williamson employees from Louisville bused into Carrollton to wave signs at the president Thursday -- has much use for tobacco company executives.
And, in the end, most Americans aren't particularly concerned about the fate of a relative handful of tobacco growers in places like Kentucky, Virginia or Brown County, Ohio.
They do, however, respond when they see the president of the United States rattling his saber at tobacco companies who have targeted kids for their product, because many of them have children and don't want to see them end up hooked on nicotine.
Bill Clinton knows that there are millions of these Americans who think that if the tobacco farmers don't like it, they can try growing tomatoes for a living.
Howard Wilkinson's column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388 or send him e-mail at hwilkinsonenquirer.com
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