HILTON HEAD, S.C. — He listened politely but offered no presidential insights during a panel discussion entitled "Whoops! Mistakes: Their Lessons and Consequences." And another session, called "A Clinical View of the Clinton Administration," he avoided entirely.
So began President Clinton's 10th appearance at the annual Renaissance Weekend, a four-day gathering of networking, relaxing and navel-contemplating. The attendance of the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has made an invitation to the New Year's event one of the nation's most coveted.
Organized by Phil Lader, a real estate developer who is now deputy White House chief of staff, the event this year attracted 1,000 high-achievers and lesser lights to a resort hotel in palm-fringed Hilton Head, S.C., to discuss the world's problems and their own.
Tackling foreign policy, health, personal growth, art, finance and family are a celebrity cast that includes Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, singer Mary Chapin Carpenter, former astronaut Bill Nelson, conservative fund-raiser Richard A. Viguerie, comedian Al Franken, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David Jones.
The headliners, though, clearly are the First Family. Clinton is to speak Saturday night on the open-ended topic of "What I've Learned," while Mrs. Clinton is part of a lunch discussion Friday on the subject of "Hard Choices." The Clintons' visit, with daughter Chelsea, is part of a year-end trip that began last Tuesday with a stop in their home state of Arkansas and ends Sunday.
The Clintons have mingled among Lader's guests as peers in previous weekends and he had hoped this year to continue that arrangement. But it has proved difficult.
Clinton, first of all, was exempted from the rule calling for all invitees to wear name tags with six-inch letters displaying their first name.
"If his kindergarten friend (White House Chief of Staff Thomas) (Mack) McLarty calls him 'Mr. President,' we should as well," said Linda Lader, who is the founder's wife and took over as organizer while her husband was in Washington. Since "President of the United States" would have been too stuffy, it was decided that he would not have to wear a tag at all.
The organizers also decided on special rules to ensure that the Clintons would have a measure of peace. Participants were directed not to badger them for autographs or to lobby them for federal action.
And, though the group prides itself on free-wheeling discussions, there were signs that some delicate subjects were being played down out of respect for the group's most celebrated member. At a Thursday session on world trouble spots--which the President attended, taking lengthy notes--no one breathed a hint of criticism of the Administration's beleaguered foreign policy team.
"Nobody bashed anybody," said one invitee.
The President's presence has brought intense scrutiny to the weekend that has made its participants sensitive, sometimes even defensive. "I think it has gotten a little self-conscious," said Doug Marlette, an editorial cartoonist who has been attending the events since 1984.
Clinton's attendance last year brought an outpouring of publicity about Renaissance Weekend, including needling descriptions of the event as a sort of New Age salon, or a convention of strivers looking to fatten their Rolodexes.
Along with Clinton this year came the usual entourage of television cameras and reporters. Although they were confined to a corner of the Hyatt Regency Hotel here and warned not to make unauthorized contacts with participants, reporters did manage some disagreeable questions.
At a press conference, Linda Lader was asked for proof that the event was not, as one reporter put it, "an enormously self-indulgent, expensive weekend for a lot of big names and wealthy people."
"This is a rather serious approach to the New Year and yet we have a lot of fun," she said. Asked to cite any ordinary people in attendance, she pointed out that singer Mary Chapin Carpenter had once dug ditches.
William L. Seidman, outspoken former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Resolution Trust Corp., said that he had thrown Lader's invitations to the event in the trash for years.
"It sounded a little bit like these things they do when they're going to sell you real estate," said Seidman, alluding to the trips that land developers offer to entice home buyers. He noted that sometimes the Laders even offered to pay for government officials' attendance.
As one of the few Republicans at the gathering, he said that he has heard more liberal views than he likes: "I heard political correctness all over the place, and it's driving me up a wall." Still, Seidman said, he finds the gathering a "sort of organized bull session" and a "rewarding experience."
Carpenter, the country singer, said that she mysteriously received an invitation in the mail and was intrigued by the topics of discussion. "My New Year's weekends consist of sitting home and feeling sorry for myself . . , saying: 'OK, will I have a date next year?' " Here, "it's like my brain is alive," she said.
Marlette said that he finds the efforts of high achievers here to probe their emotions "interesting and amusing," though awkward. "It's like white people trying to doing High Fives."
The Clintons are staying during the visit in a $2.4-million waterfront home owned by Robert Paul Burge Jr., a West Virginian who is in the concrete business. Burge, a Republican, has let the Clintons use the home at no charge.
Renaissance Weekend charges $325 for families, including some meals. Transportation and hotel charges are not included. Hotel rates start at $85 a night for singles, according to spokesman Guy Smith.