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Clinton: Just Joking!

President Clinton Thursday stepped away from the swipe he took at the "compassionate conservatism" which has become the hallmark of George W. Bush's campaign for the White House, saying he was just joking.

"I think we ought to lighten up," he said.

Clinton said he was not being mean-spirited when he said Wednesday that a "compassionate conservative" is basically a Republican who will be polite in office, but doesn't plan to accomplish anything.

"Everything I said yesterday was in complete good spirits," Clinton said following a meeting with high school students on handgun violence. "Everyone that was there knew that we were all having a very good time... And I think we ought to lighten up here on the politics and focus on the work."

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said even though Clinton insists he was joking, he obviously found making the dig at Bush delightful.

"I think he was quite pleased with himself. That was the impression I got," Lockhart said.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller reports Mr. Clinton launched the attack Wednesday at the start of a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in Baltimore.

"This 'compassionate conservatism' has a great ring to it, you know?" Mr. Clinton said. "It sounds so good, and I've really worked hard to figure out what it means. I mean, I made an honest effort and near as I can tell, here's what it means. It means: I like you, I do."

Without metioning Bush by name, the president defined a compassionate conservative as someone who is against the patient's bill of rights, gun control, a higher minimum wage, and safe futures for Medicare and Social Security - but feels terrible about it.

Mr. Clinton prefaced the speech by saying, "I know I shouldn't do this 'cause it's not really presidential - but I'm going to do it anyway."

Bush, who also was in Baltimore on Wednesday, responded that he is "proud to be a compassionate conservative. I welcome the label, and on this ground I take my stand."

Bush's spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker, said, "What part does he (Clinton) not understand, compassionate or conservative?" She added, "Many of the things that President Clinton claims to support Governor Bush has already successfully signed into law in Texas," such as protections for patients and penalties for gun-related crimes.

Clinton said he made the comments to "cut the atmosphere a little bit" and "give us something to laugh about."

"All of us that are drawing a check ought to be doing the people's business now," Clinton said. "You know we're going to have an election in November and then you'll have somebody else to chew on after 2001."

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