CARROLLTON, Ky. -- When it comes to his self-proclaimed ability to "feel your pain," President Clinton can cover a lot of territory.
Thursday in Carroll County, deep in the heart of Kentucky's burley tobacco belt, and deep in the midst of the unraveling of the multibillion-dollar tobacco litigation settlement, Mr. Clinton walked a tightrope between two seemingly intractable interests. There were the tobacco farmers, who feel threatened by what they see as a federal assault on the tobacco industry, and the millions of Americans who fear their children will be sucked by slick marketing into the habit of smoking.
On this day, when one might think the president of the United Staes would want to be anywhere else than in the middle of a rural economy that runs on tobacco, Mr. Clinton managed to have something for everybody.
For the farmers -- some of whom met with him for about an hour Thursday in the cavernous Kentuckiana Tobacco Warehouse on the edge of town -- he had the promise that he would not seek a tobacco litigation settlement that would harm their ability to make a living.
"There are 60,000 tobacco farmers in the state of Kentucky," Mr. Clinton said. "They have obeyed the rules. They have taught their children to play by the rules.
"I will not sign any legislation that does not have adequate protection for tobacco farmers," the president told a crowd of about 2,200 students in the Carroll County High School gymnasium after his meeting with the tobacco farmers.
On Wednesday, tobacco company executives said they were pulling their support of a $368.5 billion litigation settlement agreed to last year because, they said, the U.S. Senate -- with the backing of the Clinton administration -- had hiked the price tag up to $516 billion.
As President Clinton's motorcade from the Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky International Airport pulled into Carrollton, the president and his entourage were greeted by about 300 protesters bused in by the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, located about 50 miles away in Louisville.
Carrollton residents, too, got into the act of trying to impress upon the president their support for the tobacco industry. Businesses lining the motorcade route into town sported banners reading "Welcome President Clinton! Save our Tobacco!"
"I just want to make sure these people in Washington don't bury an industry that has been going on for generations in this county," said Bill Keith, a local tobacco farmer.
But for all the protesters and sign-waving, it was clear that Mr. Clinton was in Carrollton not just to reassure a relatively small group of Kentucky farmers that their livelihoods would not be lost.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The president was there to reach a larger audience, one that is angry at the tobacco companies and is alarmed at national statistics showing that 43 percent of high school youth have taken up smoking. In his 20-minute speech in the high school gym, Mr. Clinton advised the high school students -- who go to a school where the urinals in the boys rest room are clogged with cigarette butts -- to "take responsibility for your life" and not smoke.
In a message aimed at parents, Mr. Clinton said the tobacco industry "must change the way it does business" and stop advertising aimed at children and teens.
"Nobody has any animosity towards the farmers; they aren't out there marketing their product to children," Mr. Clinton said. "But for years and years, the tobacco companies wouldn't admit they were marketing to children."
Mr. Clinton made it clear that despite the position the tobacco companies took Wednesday, he plans to continue the fight.
"Even in tobacco country, we can't deny what the scientists tell us," Mr. Clinton said. "No company's bottom line is more important than America's bottom line."
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.
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