WASHINGTON THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY. — WASHINGTON -- In another potential blow to his credibility, Bill Clinton belatedly acknowledged yesterday that he knew months ago of efforts to get him a Navy Reserve assignment during the Vietnam War.
Earlier this week, the Democrat flatly denied news accounts that his uncle had lobbied for such an assignment to keep him out of the draft, allowing him to study at Oxford University in England. He and his aides said he knew nothing about any lobbying effort by an uncle, Raymond Clinton, in 1968.
"It's news to me," he said, and he implied that Republicans contrived the story.
But yesterday, Mr. Clinton confirmed a new report, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, that retired Lt. Cmdr. Trice Ellis Jr. told him at a fund-raising party in March about his uncle's efforts.
Mr. Clinton insisted he was not contradicting his earlier denial, which he said was meant to convey that he did not know of his uncle's actions at the time they were made. "I think it was just a misunderstanding," he said.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Clinton has repeatedly been forced by revelations in the press to explain or embellish his version of how he sought to avoid getting drafted. Mr. Clinton had said that it was "a fluke" that he managed to avoid the draft immediately after his graduation from college in 1968.
But his uncle's lobbying effort and Mr. Clinton's subsequent application to an Arkansas ROTC program, which he never actually joined, effectively kept him out of the draft for two years. He went on to do two years of graduate work at a time when graduate-school deferments were no longer allowed.
Mr. Clinton's credibility has also been called into question on other matters, including his reluctant admission that he tried marijuana but "didn't inhale" and allegations of marital infidelity.
Mr. Bush has attempted to exploit doubts about Mr. Clinton's character by saying the election is all about "trust." Mr. Bush has tried to capitalize on the draft issue by contrasting Mr. Clinton's lack of military service with references to his enlistment in the Navy in World War II.
Yesterday, Bush supporters, led by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, demanded that Mr. Clinton "come clean" about the draft issue. But a top Bush adviser said the matter went deeper.
"The issue is not the draft; the issue is his credibility," said Charles Black, senior adviser to the Bush-Dan Quayle campaign.
In the latest development, the Arkansas paper reported that Mr. Clinton expressed surprise last March when Mr. Ellis mentioned his uncle's effort to win him a place in the Navy Reserve as part of a larger effort to keep his nephew from getting drafted.
" 'That was the first time I have heard that story,' " Mr. Ellis said Mr. Clinton replied.
Mr. Ellis could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Last week, Mr. Clinton gave a speech to the American Legion in which he said he was going to "set the record straight" about his draft record. The day before that speech, he told reporters, "We wrote everybody in the whole wide world, and we didn't find anything out from any of the people we wrote to that hadn't been written in the press already."
But he didn't tell reporters then, nor the American Legion the next day, that Mr. Ellis had told him in March of his uncle's efforts to land him a Navy Reserve slot.
In a brief statement issued yesterday by his campaign, Mr. Clinton seemed to suggest that he didn't mention what Mr. Ellis told him because it couldn't be confirmed:
"I did not know about any efforts to secure a Naval Reserve assignment before Mr. Ellis mentioned it to me in Hot Springs. There was no way to document or confirm what he told me. The only military option I was offered and considered was the ROTC."
Mr. Clinton did not enter the Navy Reserve or the ROTC. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that though Mr. Clinton didn't enter the reserve, his uncle's lobbying of the Hot Springs draft board apparently helped to delay a pre-induction physical he would have faced upon graduating from Georgetown University in 1968. The physical was put off for almost 11 months, more than
twice as long as for any other prime draft-age men from the Hot Springs area.
In the summer of 1969, Mr. Clinton signed up for the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, obtaining a deferment that permitted him to attend Oxford University a second year. That year Mr. Clinton wrote an ROTC colonel thanking him for "saving me from the draft."
But Mr. Clinton eventually had second thoughts about his ROTC application. He said he contacted his draft board, asking to be classified eligible again. Mr. Clinton received a high draft lottery number, 311, on Dec. 1, 1969, and was never called.