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Clinton Assails Bush at Commencement Talk

May 19, 2003

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Former President Bill Clinton accused President Bush of spending more time fighting the war on terrorism than on domestic issues during a commencement speech at Tougaloo College.

``I supported the president when he asked for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but we can’t be forever strong abroad if we don’t keep getting better at home,″ Clinton said Sunday to a crowd of about 8,000.

Clinton also criticized Bush’s position on affirmative action and tax cuts just two days after the President formally kicked off his re-election campaign.

Clinton stayed for the entire three-hour ceremony and shook hands with each of the 144 graduates at the relatively obscure historically black college. But this private school of 800 students will also be the site of the Aug. 13 Democratic presidential debate.

Judging from the warm reception to his every blast of the Bush administration, Clinton had a lot of supporters in the crowd _ which included former Democratic governors of Mississippi, Ray Mabus and William Winter.

On the stage with Clinton were Governor Ronnie Musgrove, and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., a Tougaloo graduate and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

``We Democrats in Congress miss you,″ Thompson said, referring to the Republican majority in both houses of Congress and the Democrats’ inability to derail Bush’s tax cut plan.

Clinton, who commands as much as $350,000 a speech, was speaking at Tougaloo for free.

Clinton’s attack on the president comes as Bush _ who in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll had an approval rating of 71 percent, down from 77 percent during the war in Iraq _ is drawing criticism from Democrats for his tax cut proposals and support for ``race neutral alternatives″ to affirmative action.

Clinton laughed long and heartily when student government president C.J. Lawrence assured the crowd that selecting Clinton was not an example of affirmative action. ``Yes, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby were also considered, but I assure you Bill Clinton was selected solely on his merit,″ Lawrence said, drawing a big round of applause.

Despite the laughter, Clinton spoke seriously about what he said is the need to show that America takes care of its citizens of all races and all income levels through affirmative action and after-school care programs.

Clinton suggested that Bush’s priorities are fighting terrorism, not domestic issues.

The Bush administration, Clinton said, ``is still focused on defeating terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and that’s good, but not good enough. The power of our example is just as important as our military might.″

Clinton also took aim at the growing budget deficit and Bush’s tax cut proposals _ all issues that are being raised by the nine Democrats who are running for president in 2004. Sunday’s crowd at Tougaloo made it plain who many of them would like to see in the White House.

``I think if you were to take a vote here, they’d vote for Bill Clinton if he was running again,″ said Jerry Keahey, class of ’61.

Clinton, who sang along with the choir to ``Lift Every Voice and Sing″ and chatted at length with many of those around him on the podium, also took time to take a jab at Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Lott lost his Senate Majority Leader position after his comment in December that the nation would have been better served if retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 when he ran on a segregationist platform.

Referring to the 134-year-old college’s need to raise money to renovate its old buildings, Clinton suggested that Lott might want to help them raise money to make up for his remarks.

``Reach out, don’t give up on anybody,″ Clinton said. ``This is Sunday. Ask Lott to give you the money for the buildings. He said he was going to spend the rest of his life making up for the little trouble he had.″

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