Strike two against Clinton

Sandy Grady

February 10, 1992|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- Until now, the betting line on Bill Clinton was warily upbeat. Would he weather a sex scandal? Almost uniformly, Democratic insiders were saying, "He'll survive unless another shoe drops."

That sound you heard was the other shoe dropping.

A big one.

Just when Clinton seemed to be staggering out from under Gennifer Flowers' kiss-and-tell tabloid tale, he's rattled by charges that he manipulated his way out of Vietnam War duty.

The second blow in this one-two punch could be a TKO.

Contemporary voters may shrug off a lurid, told-for-pay account of sexual infidelity. Draft dodging if that's what Clinton did is political dynamite.

Clinton, who has handled his troubles with poise and defiance, may yet limp through New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, and later contests to the Democratic nomination. He's not facing heavyweights.

But Democratic leaders' fright intensifies over the possibility that next fall Bill Clinton will be a crippled fish for George Bush to reel in.

"They're scared we'll be stuck with a candidate so flawed that Bush walks in," Democratic consultant Victor Kamber said.

This time it wasn't the supermarket rag, Star, but the Wall Street Journal that stabbed Clinton. The Journal reports that in 1969, when the Vietnam War raged hotly and Clinton was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he became vulnerable to the draft. His gimmick: A promise to join the ROTC at the U. of Arkansas.

"But Mr. Clinton never joined the training program or even enrolled at the university," said the Journal. "When he finally returned to the U.S., he enrolled at Yale Law School."

The Journal's most devastating quotes came from Opal Ellis, 84, a Republican, who was executive secretary of Clinton's draft board. She recalled, "He told me he was too educated to go ... He was going to fix my wagon and pull every string he could think of."

True, many educated young men during the Vietnam era discovered ways to slide past the draft. Some are Ivy professors, Wall Street tycoons, Washington lawyers and hawkish congressmen.

But they aren't running for president and already reeling under heavy ballast.

"This is the worst thing since (Michael) Dukakis posed in that damn tank," said one Democratic activist.

For Clinton, the brutal irony is that he'll share the stigma that haunted Dan Quayle.

Are there Clinton-Quayle parallels?

Pretty close. At least Quayle served with the National Guard while attending law school. Clinton, it seems, skipped out on the ROTC and later lucked out of the draft on a high lottery number.

Clinton, impressively cool parrying news mobs on his twin controversies, insists that "It's an old story recycled by Republicans. I wasn't avoiding military service."

His version? Clinton told reporters in New Hampshire: "I had friends who were killed there (Vietnam). I didn't think it was right to get a four-year (ROTC) deferment even though I was opposed to the war ... I put myself in the draft. It was a fluke I wasn't called."

No matter how Clinton plays the tune, the Vietnam-ducking episode may worry voters about his character and credibility who is this guy?

His fellow Democratic gypsies, who stayed aloof from Clinton's alleged extramarital affair, aren't squeamish about the Vietnam ruckus.

Bob Kerrey, a lagging Clinton pursuer who lost a leg in a Vietnam firefight, could benefit from this draft flap. "If there's misrepresentation as with Dan Quayle, I have a problem," said Kerrey. "The jury's out."

Tom Harkin, a Vietnam-era Navy pilot, was harsher. "The last thing Gov. Clinton needs is another story questioning his veracity and character. This will hurt badly."

If Democratic peers openly swat Clinton, wait until Bush's bTC Hessians unlash the bullwhips. "The contrast with Bush will be stark," University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato predicted.

The Bush guys are in hog heaven contemplating a Clinton match. They could run the Flowers' tapes with an overvoice: "President Bush He Stands for Family Values." Or TV ads with a montage of Navy flyer Bush and the line: "George Bush He Never Ducked When His Country Called." Or a sly TV voice asking, "Where was Bill Clinton in '69?"

Or would the gang that invented Willie Horton stay above flag-and-muck sniping? Sure.

Democrats from George McGovern in '72 to Jimmy Carter's failed desert raid, to Dukakis's tank ride are perceived as soft on national defense. That's why Clinton's draft controversy, even in post-Cold War calm, hurts.

Maybe hard-times voters will say, "Who cares?" Is obsession with the lousy economy so overwhelming, it will blot out rumors of sexual misbehavior or dodging a war 23 years ago?

Democratic honchos, especially the 800 super-delegates to the '92 convention, will watch teetering Clinton closely. He can't afford to lose in New Hampshire. Or anywhere else.

One loss, one more fiasco, and they'll be ringing Mario Cuomo or Lloyd Bentsen: "Come in and bail us out."

For Bill Clinton, two strikes is big trouble.

Three strikes, he's finished.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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