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Clintons Defend Conference on Women from Detractors

By John M. Broder
Los Angeles Times
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo.

President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday harshly assailed conservative critics of the International Conference on Women to be held in Beijing next week, defending the gathering as "true blue" to family values.

The president blasted Republican lawmakers and conservative Christian leaders who have characterized the forum as radical and anti-family, saying such criticism is driven by "an almost addictive, almost narcotic" desire to divide the American people on sensitive matters.

Speaking at an event here marking the 75th anniversary of passage of the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, the president and the first lady said the Beijing conference will address issues of critical importance to families, such as health care, domestic violence, economic development and human rights.

"It is about giving a voice to women, whoever they are and wherever they are, so that they can be heard as we make decisions that affect our lives," Mrs. Clinton said.

The president denied that he is dispatching "some sort of radical delegation" to the United Nations-sponsored conference scheduled for Sept. 4-15.

The White House announced on Friday that Mrs. Clinton, who will attend Sept. 5-6, will serve as honorary chairwoman of the U.S. delegation. Her participation was approved one day after the Chinese expelled Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu, whose imprisonment had severely strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

Republican critics of the conference - including Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, rival candidates for the GOP presidential nomination - characterized the meeting as driven by an anti-family, radical feminist agenda. They urged the administration to boycott the conference and sharply criticized Clinton's decision to elevate the status of the U.S. delegation by sending the first lady as its honorary chair.

Republican leaders also cited Wu's two-month detention as cause for the first lady to stay away from the conference.

On Saturday, Wu echoed that sentiment. "If Mrs. Clinton went over there, whatever she did in Beijing, first of all the Chinese win. They win a victory," the activist said in an interview with San Francisco radio station KCBS. "That's a very strong signal. They can use it in their propaganda."

Appearing against a backdrop of crystalline Jackson Lake and the dramatic peaks of the Grand Tetons, the president told 300 people at an event sponsored by the Wyoming League of Women Voters that the goal of the Beijing conference is to improve the lot of women worldwide, not to undermine the family.

"However anyone might try to paint this conference, the truth is that it is true blue to families - to supporting them, to conserving them, to valuing them."

He took a veiled slap at China's official policy penalizing childbearing and its cultural acceptance of killing newborn girls.

"There are still places were little girl babies are more likely to be killed just because they are little girls," Clinton said. "There are still countries in the world that try to force women not to have children, and that's something we can't imagine in this country, where that's the most profound right that women have in the family."

Striking a more explicit domestic political posture, Clinton noted that there is a "huge effort" by Republicans and conservative Christian activists to portray the conference as radically anti-family. He said his opponents twist issues such as women's equality "like Silly Putty into extremes."

"Why?" Clinton asked rhetorically. "Not because it's true, but because it furthers the almost addictive, almost narcotic drive among some elements in our society to take every single issue and use it as a cause for division among our people when we need to be more united."

Mrs. Clinton said the delegation, formally led by U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, will include representatives of all economic and political backgrounds. She said it would include women in business, medicine, education, journalism and the law. Also attending will be a group of 10- to 14-year-old girls from Duluth, Minn.

"It is an extraordinary group of people, men and women, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. The common goal is to find common ground to advance the interests of our nation's women and children and families," the first lady said. "It's a delegation that should make every woman and every American proud."