The Man Who Would Be President

RICHARD REEVES

February 19, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.-- Bill Clinton's 1969 letter to the Army colonel he tricked made me think better of him. The document ''to thank you . . . for saving me from the draft'' could outlive the man as critical literature in the study of the political mind.

Whatever happens to him next, Mr. Clinton's life view as a 23-year-old was deeper, more perceptive and perhaps more honest than my own, as I remember it. But there are a couple of critical differences between us: I am 10 years older than he; thus I was not eligible for the draft during most of the war in Vietnam. And I never thought about being president, even if my high school yearbook said I would be.

Mr. Clinton did think about it, all the time. We should be grateful for the insight he has given us of post-John Kennedy political ambition. The man who ran his first race at the age of 27 (for Congress) had this to say four years earlier, explaining how he rose above his principles, in his case his belief that resisting the draft was the right thing to do:

''The decision not to be a resister and the related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life. 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.''

You can't make it much clearer than that. In his middle teens, Mr. Clinton decided politics was his profession. Except for waiting or holding periods after he lost elections, he has been campaigning for or holding public office his entire adult life. He is a classic example of the new breed of supply-side candidates.

There are approximately 10,000 American high school students, 9,000 of them male, actively running for the presidency -- in the 2020 election or beyond. They are the bottom, the beginning, of a process that looks like a pyramid. Most will drop away over the years -- though I would bet a majority of them will hold public office at one time or another -- but a half-dozen, like Bill Clinton, will make it to the top and take their shot at the big one. Some of it may be timing or luck, but our future presidents will be self-made men or women.

They are different from you or me. A central characteristic of these characters is total conviction that one-on-one they will always prevail -- win or get what they want. What they most want is often to be loved, liked or obeyed, preferring love above all. That is why charm is the coin of their realm. It is also why so much of the history of the 1960s, including American involvement in Vietnam, can be traced to Kennedy's inability to prevail over Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the summit meeting in June of 1961.

Young Clinton probably wrote his letter to Col. Eugene Holmes, director of the Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the University of Arkansas, for the same kinds of reasons. Whatever his manipulation of the draft laws and systems, he seemed anxious to make the colonel love him anyway.

''My high regard for you,'' says the letter, leads to the painful thought that ''it seems that the admiration might not have been mutual.'' It is hard to figure any other reasons that a man as calculating as Clinton would write down thoughts he must have known could become dangerous. Uncommon candor, used selectively, is part of the arsenal of politicians trying to draw people close to them.

Whatever price he pays for such candid self-service, the letter is smart and thoughtful and sensitive -- better than his speeches.

''I have written and spoken and marched against the war,'' he wrote then. ''I worked for two years in a very minor position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I did it for the experience and the salary but also for the opportunity, however small, of working every day against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam. . . .

''No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation. . . .

''One of my roommates is a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again. He is one of the bravest, best men I know. His country needs men like him more than they know. That he is considered a criminal is an obscenity.''

It may be impossible for one generation to judge another on the question of the draft. Men talk of ''my war'' and ''our war;'' the events and the shared experience are generational. My generation or half-generation was a lucky one, too young for Korea, too old for Vietnam. I was called up twice and deferred twice, during crises in Berlin, first as a critical-skills student (engineering), then as a father. In between, I was turned down by the Air Force because of an eye problem.

Having said that, I think Bill Clinton was right about the war in 1969 and, if he is punished by voters this time because of what he believed then, deserves another chance in four years or eight years. No nation, whatever each of us thinks of professional politicians, is rich enough to throw away the kind of talent Mr. Clinton showed in this year and that one, too.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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