Clinton delay makes issue of draft a bitter medicine



PORTLAND, Ore. -- The controversy over Bill Clinton's draft history is one of those cases in which the whole seems to be larger than the sum of the parts.

The facts are unremarkable. Like many of Americans at the time, Clinton opposed the war in Vietnam and tried to find a way to avoid being drafted to serve there. His quest for a place in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps was essentially no different from Vice President Dan Quayle's effort to sit out the war in the Indiana National Guard.

But the Democratic nominee for president has made a classic political blunder by forcing the press to pull the story out one fact at a time. If there is a lesson any big-league politician should know, it is that in cases like this someone is going to follow every thread to the end until the pattern is totally revealed.

In the most recent development, Clinton's assertion that he was unaware of his uncle's attempt to find him a billet in the Navy Reserves may be credible. But when it was disclosed in the Los Angeles Times, Clinton made more trouble for himself by not disclosing right away that he had been told about the episode several months ago.

Instead, he made the essentially legalistic argument that when he denied knowledge of his uncle's efforts in his behalf, he really meant he had no contemporaneous knowledge. This, of course, quickly recalled the earlier incident in which he admitted smoking marijuana in England only when the question couldn't be answered with his avowal that he had broken no laws of the United States.

On the facts, Clinton's behavior in both cases was conventional. Politicians of his generation who didn't try marijuana are rare indeed. Even that straight arrow Al Gore admitted he used it. But in politics the first rule is that perceptions are often more (P important than facts. And the perception now is that Clinton has been playing cute games on both questions. Slick Willie.

It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that Clinton's reluctance to speak candidly from the outset on these questions has anything to do with whether he could be a capable and effective president. But neither was there any logic in suggesting in 1988 that Michael S. Dukakis was lacking in patriotism because he refused to insist, in the face of a legal opinion to the contrary, that public school children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag in contravention of their religious beliefs.

Unhappily for Dukakis and now for Clinton, the rules of logic don't always apply in politics. Voters don't pay attention the fine print; they don't read every story in the Los Angeles Times down to the end. Instead, they form impressions -- often with the help of the political opposition, in this case the Bush-Quayle campaign again.

So, until Sen. Bob Kerrey intervened with his emotional speech on the Senate floor Thursday, the picture has been one of the Bush campaign questioning whether Clinton can be "trusted" given his draft record and one of Clinton growing snappish and testy with reporters, which is what always happens when politicians get into hot water. Television pictures of the Democratic candidate being walled off from the press do not send a positive message.

In one sense, it is easy to sympathize with Clinton. This is bush-league stuff when you are talking about 10 million Americans out of work and 35 million without health insurance. But no one ever said the system is always fair, and so the operative question is whether the issue has the legs to threaten him as Dukakis was menaced by the flag and Willie Horton issues.

On the one hand, it is still early and there are still miles to go in which the voters can be expected to focus on more substantial matters. By next month, the questions may be seen as totally irrelevant. It is also true, however, that the Bush campaign has not yet used all of its ammunition on the issue -- most notably Clinton's reference to "loathing the military" in that letter he wrote to the ROTC officer to thank him for helping him avoid the draft.

Political professionals recognize there is a risk factor any time an incumbent president is being challenged by someone less experienced. Voters are being asked, in effect, to take the chance of putting someone new into the White House. That means additional pressure on the challenger to present himself as a reassuring political leader. In his handling of the draft issue, Bill Clinton has not yet passed that test.

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