President Clinton put on his jeans and cowboy boots, mounted a horse named Phire Power and spent Thursday confronting Westerners’ antigovernment sentiments and doubts about his administration.
Later, in a televised town hall meeting, he strongly defended the ban on assault weapons and expressed support for federal workers. He sharply criticized the National Rifle Association, lashed out at militias and paramilitary groups that advocate violence and decried an atmosphere of divisiveness.
“This whole climate is bad. … If you keep people torn up and upset, fear may be a stronger force than hope. But it’s not good for America, and we are better than that,” he told an audience at KTVQ-TV’s studio in Billings.
Clinton brought this message to Montana, to a region where militias have thrived, where ranchers and farmers are angry over federal interference and regulation, where gun control is unpopular and where many are unhappy over his earlier effort to raise grazing fees.
The town hall meeting provided him an opportunity to field mostly friendly questions from people who have concerns about the “militia mentality” and the safety of federal workers and other issues.
“All these people out here in these various groups that are sending faxes around trying to tell people how they can assault federal officials who are doing their jobs … He said it is wrong to condemn people who are doing their jobs, wrong to threaten them. He warned against generically condemning people who work for the federal government and said that is the “kind of mentality” that produced the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
“And when you hear somebody doing it, you ought to stand up and double up your fist and stick it in the sky and shout them down. That is wrong,” he told the daughter of a federal worker who said she was worried about her father’s safety.
Both here and Wednesday in Colorado, Clinton did some much-needed political spadework in two Rocky Mountain states that voted for him in 1992.
With help from independent candidate Ross Perot, whose strong showing in the region hurt Republican George Bush, Clinton carried eight of 13 Western states. But it is unclear what his prospects in the West might be in 1996. With the exception of 1992, the region consistently has supported Republican presidential candidates in recent years. And Clinton’s popularity has dropped.
“There’s no denying we got off on the wrong foot here,” said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
In an interview with The Billings Gazette, the president did a mea culpa, admitting that his Interior Department’s 1993 decision to raise grazing fees on federal lands was a mistake that gave Republicans the opening to say Clinton was waging “a war on the West.”
With the exception of a few states, Clinton has traveled little in the West since winning the White House. His effort to raise grazing fees - which he ultimately abandoned - his mining and timber policies and his push for gun control have stirred dissatisfaction in this region.
The president is trying to mend fences and fix political problems here by doing the same thing he has done in other regions: Spending time.
In Montana, he delivered an explanation of his policies in a sweltering gymnasium packed with local residents on Wednesday night. He ate Texas antelope at Walker’s Grill, listening to and talking with Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat; Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, and other elected officials.
Thursday morning he dropped by the Kit Kat Cafe and chatted with customers. Then he visited Les and Dianna Auer’s 7,000-acre wheat farm, where he rode a horse through sagebrush and discussed farm issues.
Clinton is touting his economic and environmental record. And he’s telling Montanans that he’s boosted exports through a new international trade agreement and that Republicans want to cut agricultural subsidies far more than he does.
The questions from the farmers he met with were friendly, although Auer politely complained about government regulation and suggested that farmers could be better “stewards of the land” if they weren’t being “dictated to by the government.”
The televised town hall meeting provided him with a high profile forum to make his case on issues that included AIDS, crime, the budget, Bosnia, education and gun control.
“I still believe it was the right thing to do. I strongly believe it was the right thing to do,” he said of the law banning 19 types of assault weapons.
He chastized the NRA for trying to “raise members and raise money” by making “extreme claims” on the gun issue.
“They put out a letter in which they called officials ‘jack-booted thugs’ as you know, but the other part of the letter accused me of encouraging federal officials to commit murder. And I just think that’s wrong,” he said.
Clinton told Montanans they need to think of what’s good for the country as a whole. He told how in the cities emergency room personnel and police officers told him the ban was necessary.
His overarching message dealt with the current climate in the nation.
Asked to compare the protesters of the 1960s and 1970s with those of the 1990s, he said some protesters in the earlier decades had gone beyond their First Amendment rights and advocated violence. “They were wrong then and this crowd is wrong now,” he said.
In an apparent reference to Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., Clinton faulted public officials who “are only too happy to criticize the culture of violence being promoted by the media or the rap lyrics … but are stone-cold silent when these other folks are talking and making violence seem like it’s okay.”
During his trip, Clinton also praised the residents of Billings for their response when a group of skinheads in late 1993 threw bottles and bricks into the homes of two Jewish families that were decorated with Hanukkah menorahs.
Within days, thousands of windows across the city displayed copies of the nine-candled symbol of Jewish perseverance, many of which had been distributed by Christian churches and by local businesses.
“You said that this was a community issue,” Clinton said.