President Clinton and conservative critics debated how to deal with racial discrimination on Friday in a closed-door session held to deflect criticism that Clinton's race initiative is one-sided.
Conservatives emerged from the hour-and-a-half session in the Oval Office elated and unusually complimentary of Clinton, saying they felt their views will help Clinton in his decision-making on whether to change government policies granting job and education preferences to minorities.
"I must confess to you that I came today with a certain amount of cynicism . . . But I must tell you that the president made a believer out of me, that he is of good will. He's interested in this subject," said Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and a leading opponent to minority preferences.
But the White House made clear Clinton had not changed his mind in favor of so-called affirmative action programs designed to help minorities and that Clinton was still looking for conservatives to offer viable alternatives instead of denouncing current policies.
Indeed, a transcript of the closed-door session showed Clinton asking on various occasions for his critics to give him concrete proposals.
"Let's assume we abolished them all tomorrow, and we just had to start all over, what would you do?" he asked at one point.
The president announced in June his year-long national dialogue on race to ease racial tensions in America. But the effort has been slow to gather steam and has been criticized by conservatives as being biased in favor of affirmative action policies.
Clinton only agreed to a meeting with conservatives as fodder for his project when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, complained the president's race initiative was one-sided.
"Today's meeting moved the dialogue a lot further," said former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who was the race advisory board's representative at the meeting. "This is just Step One. My hope is this will now be a national dialogue involving people of all views."
Conservative Linda Chavez, who was director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under Ronald Reagan's presidency, said Clinton welcomed their views.
"He was very clear that he did not in fact believe that those of us in that room who are opposed to preferences are all people of bad will. He clearly feels that we share a common goal."
Connerly said he urged Clinton to extend the life of his race advisory board by six months and to take from them any consideration of minority preferences because any recommendation it makes "is going to be polluted by the perception that they're not a balanced board."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton has already indicated he would lengthen the life span of the board.