What His Letter Said About Clinton


February 20, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- How can I ever repay you for your kindness, Mr. Reed?' said Luke, overjoyed.

'I have taken a fancy to you, Luke,' said his companion. 'I hope to do more for you soon.' ''

-- ''Struggling Upward; or Luke Larkin's Luck,'' by Horatio Alger Jr. (1886).

''First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer. . . . Please say hello to Col. Jones for me.''

-- letter to Col. Eugene Holmes of the Arkansas ROTC, by Bill Clinton (1969).

Until last week, the most vivid depiction of a Rhodes Scholar in literature was in Max Beerbohm's 1911 novel of Oxford, ''Zuleika Dobson.'' His joke was that Americans are unconsciously verbose:

''Like most of my countrymen, I am a man of few words. We are habituated out there to act rather than talk. Judged from the view-point of your beautiful old civilization, I am aware my curtness must seem crude. But, gentlemen, believe me, right here --''

But we now have a far richer exposition of the Rhodes Scholar mentality in Bill Clinton's famous letter -- written half a lifetime ago -- explaining why he would not be joining the University of Arkansas Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Mr. Clinton is a classic Rhodes Scholar type. That's not, or at least not entirely, an insult: It's a classic American type, too.

What is most revealing about the letter is that Mr. Clinton didn't need to write it. He had already reneged on his previous commitment to join ROTC. And he was already safe from the draft, due to a high number in the lottery two days before.

But he had cultivated a relationship with this Colonel Holmes, and had ''promised to let you hear from me at least once a month.'' He clearly couldn't bear the thought that Colonel Holmes might turn against him for betrayal, or that his own friendship with the older man had been a mere cynical calculation.

So he writes of his ''depth of feeling,'' his ''anguish,'' his sleepless nights. He hopes to impress the colonel -- and himself -- with the shining sincerity of his confession that ''I had no interest in the ROTC program in itself.''

The letter ends with the fatal words, ''Please say hello to Col. Jones for me.'' Another colonel! Young Clinton had had a busy summer. But this colonel was not impressed. In an ironic twist, Colonel Jones saved the letter and nursed his resentment for 23 years, then released both.

When people talk about a ''Horatio Alger success story,'' they usually have in mind someone who lifted himself up by his own bootstraps. But that is not what Horatio Alger's stories were like at all.

The typical Horatio Alger hero succeeds by impressing a successful older man or men with his sterling qualities. '' 'A thoroughly good boy, and a smart boy, too!' said Armstrong to himself. 'I must see if I can't give him a chance to rise. He seems absolutely reliable.' ''

These days we call this sort of thing, ''mentoring.''

The way you get a Rhodes Scholarship is to solicit eight recommendations, compose a personal essay and submit to intense interviews by a selection committee composed of local dignitaries, mostly former Rhodes Scholars. The whole procedure is an institutionalized Horatio Alger story, an orgy of mentoring.

The qualities this process tends to reward are well displayed in the Clinton letter. Above all there is the combination of slick ambition and earnest, almost naive, idealism. Unction and real charm do battle almost sentence by sentence. No one reading the letter can doubt that this intelligent young man is sincerely opposed to the war.

Equally, no one can doubt that he buffaloed the ROTC colonels and is trying to buffalo them again. His anguish over making the right moral choices in his life is believable and touching. Less touching is the suspicion that what's best for Bill Clinton will usually turn out to be the right thing to do.

It's no surprise that so many Rhodes Scholars go into politics. Idealism and ambition observe an uneasy truce in the heads of the best politicians as well. Politicians tend to have the same ravenous need for approval, and the same skill at evoking it.

But then there's the theory that Rhodes Scholars make bad politicians because they expect to be handed rewards on a platter. They're good at pandering up, not down. That's why a Rhodes Scholar will never be president.

So goes the theory. We shall see. It's true that someone like Bill Bradley seems to think he should be selected for the presidency by a panel of distinguished fellows.

But Bill Clinton is, from all reports, a natural politician who truly enjoys it in its most retail aspects.

Let's not be too hard on Bill Clinton. He's a good boy, and a smart boy, too. We must see if we can't give him a chance to rise. He seems relatively reliable.

TRB is a column in The New Republic written by Michael Kinsley.

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