MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the latest crisis of his faltering presidential campaign, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton tried yesterday contain the political damage from a 1969 letter about his effort to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.
Mr. Clinton, then a graduate student, wrote that despite his intense opposition to the war, he decided to risk being drafted "for one reason: to maintain my political viability."
With the New Hampshire primary five days away, disclosure of the letter puts renewed focus on the draft controversy, which has contributed to Mr. Clinton's plunge in the polls. Since the issue surfaced a week ago, he has fallen out of the lead in the Democratic race here and now trails former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas by as much as 15 points in one poll.
At a tense news conference, a grim-faced Mr. Clinton attempted to deflect attention from the contents of the letter he wrote 22 years ago.
He suggested that the Bush administration had leaked the letter in an effort to destroy his candidacy, likening it to Watergate-style "dirty tricks." Mr. Clinton warned that the entire political system was imperiled by such tactics.
"This is not a big deal for me," he maintained. "It is a very big deal for the political process."
A Bush spokesman denied any White House involvement and refused further comment.
The Clinton campaign made the letter public hours before it was to be the subject of a network TV report. ABC News provided a copy of the letter to the campaign, saying that it had been obtained through Pentagon sources, according to Mr. Clinton.
But the network reported last night that the letter had been provided by the former second-in-command of the Army ROTC unit at the University of Arkansas.
The three-page letter was addressed to Col. Eugene Holmes, then head of the university's ROTC unit. It was dated Dec. 3, 1969, one day after Mr. Clinton learned that he had drawn a high number in the draft lottery, which guaranteed that he would never be drafted.
In the letter, Mr. Clinton, then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England, thanked Colonel Holmes for "saving me from the draft." The letter went on to explain Mr. Clinton's deep opposition both to the draft system, which he termed "illegitimate," as well as to the war itself.
In the letter, Mr. Clinton wrote that he considered, but rejected, becoming a draft resister.
"I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead," he wrote. Mr. Clinton explained yesterday that this referred to his desire to oppose the war from within the political system, not to a planned political career.
In August 1969, Mr. Clinton signed a letter of intent to join the ROTC unit by telling Colonel Holmes he intended to enroll at the Arkansas law school. As a result, Mr. Clinton obtained a draft determent that allowed him to complete his final year at Oxford; he never actually attended Arkansas, eventually enrolling at Yale Law School instead.
Once back in graduate school, Mr. Clinton dropped his ROTC deferment and made himself eligible for the draft. Mr. Holmes, in an interview published last week in the Wall Street Journal, accused Mr. Clinton of being "able to manipulate things."
Mr. Clinton has repeatedly said in recent weeks that he dropped his draft deferment because he felt guilty about obtaining a four-year deferment while former classmates were serving and dying in Vietnam. That explanation does not appear in the letter, although he did write that he "began to wonder whether the compromise that I had made with myself was not more objectionable than the draft would have been, because I had no interest in the ROTC program in itself and all I seemed to have done was to protect myself from physical harm."
He went on to tell Colonel Holmes: "I began to think I had deceived you, not by lies -- there were none -- but by failing to tell you all the things I'm writing now."
Nothing in the letter directly contradicts any major claim by Mr. Clinton, made during the current campaign, about his 1969 actions.
However, the document exposes Mr. Clinton to renewed criticism from political adversaries. The letter could also prove damaging in the South, where he is attempting to appeal to conservatives by portraying himself as tough-minded on defense.
At yesterday's news conference, Mr. Clinton tried to anticipate some of those attacks.
"This is not about my patriotism," he said, reading from a prepared statement. "The people whose character and patriotism are really at issue in this election are those who would divert the attention of the people, destroy the reputations of their opponents and divide the country we love."