WASHINGTON — President Clinton, continuing his efforts to improve his image with the nation's military personnel, made his first formal visit to the Pentagon Thursday, in what was billed partly as a handshaking tour and partly as a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Administration officials said that the three-hour session at the Pentagon lasted longer than had been planned and that the President and the joint chiefs discussed a broad range of issues, from the conflict in Bosnia to the situations in Haiti, Russia, North Korea and Cuba.
Clinton later met with the senior enlisted men in each of the armed services and conferred privately with Defense Secretary Les Aspin. A senior Administration official later described the President's meeting with the joint chiefs as "congenial."
At a picture-taking session, Clinton suggested that he would not seek any deeper cuts in defense spending in coming years than the reductions proposed in the budget sent to Congress Thursday.
"Well, if we can get this budget ratified, I think that the numbers will be clear and certain for five years and I wouldn't expect to see them modified any over the next few years, based on at least what I see now," the President told reporters.
But Defense Department officials said that might change after Aspin and his aides conduct their so-called "bottom-up review" of the nation's military requirements and defense spending levels. The review is expected to be completed sometime this summer.
Asked what he had learned during his visit with the joint chiefs, Clinton responded simply: "A lot."
The visit marked the latest in a series of efforts by the President to strengthen his relations with the military and to dampen suspicion among servicemen and servicewomen over his own lack of military service and his efforts to step up the cutbacks in the military budget.
Earlier this month, in his first visit to a U.S. warship, Clinton visited the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to praise the sailors and Marines there as the vessel left for the Adriatic Sea. According to reports at the time, he got a polite but unenthusiastic reception.
On Thursday, the carefully managed Pentagon crowd was less cool toward the President and officials said that, during his talks with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clinton all but avoided such controversial issues as his push to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.
"There was only passing reference to it (the gays issue)," one official said.
A senior Defense Department official said Thursday that the President's effort to woo the military--wryly dubbed "the charm offensive" by some Pentagon wags--is the brainchild of Aspin, who spent 22 years in the House as a congressman from Wisconsin.
Aspin has frequently insisted to critics that the military is "a natural constituency" for Clinton, who as President is commander in chief of the armed forces. "It's eminently winnable," the Defense Department official said.
Pentagon officials said that Clinton is likely to continue his periodic appearances before military crowds in coming months, addressing commencement audiences at the service academies and perhaps presenting the trophy to the winner of the Army-Navy football game.
"This is not a hard sell," the Defense Department official said. "There is an opportunity here. This is a constituency that Bill Clinton can win. It's a constituency that is watching and waiting right now."
Defense officials deny that the effort is designed partly to soften opposition within the military to Clinton's planned budget cuts or his proposal to lift the ban on homosexuals. "These are two different things," a Defense official said.
Instead, officials said, the Administration will seek to win military support by ensuring that the armed services continue to attract high-quality personnel and up-to-date technology. "The important thing is to keep the fighting force," one strategist said.
The Administration has suffered from a rocky relationship with the military almost since the day Clinton took office. Earlier this year, a top Army general complained that a White House aide had insulted him by saying that she did "not talk to" military personnel.
Defense Department officials said that Clinton, who was greeted by an honor guard at the Pentagon's entrance, received a briefing from the Joint Chiefs on Bosnia and other issues, and then spent more than an hour asking them general questions.
After his visit to the Pentagon, Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Little Rock, Ark., to attend services for Hugh Rodham, 82, Mrs. Clinton's father, who died Wednesday. He had suffered a stroke nearly three weeks ago.
A memorial service is scheduled for this afternoon at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock with funeral and burial tentatively scheduled for Saturday in Scranton, Pa., Rodham's hometown.