Where was Bill?

Mona Charen

October 13, 1992|By Mona Charen

BILL Clinton's refusal to talk about his trip to the Soviet Union in late 1969 has raised questions about his integrity, his judgment and his moral reasoning.

In the first presidential debate Sunday evening, Mr. Clinton, in a bit of McCarthyism of his own, attempted to discredit these questions by labeling them as McCarthyite. He insisted that the president was impugning his patriotism by raising the issue of his conduct abroad. Not exactly. What people are trying to discover is whether Mr. Clinton is a fool.

According to the Washington Times (and verified by the Clinton campaign), the candidate traveled to Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia during a vacation break from Oxford. That's fine. This is a free country, and we permit our citizens the right to travel.

It is the candidate's claim that he cannot remember whom he met with or spoke to during his trip to Russia that gives us pause. Isn't this the same man who couldn't recall whether or not he'd received a draft notice? Most people have clear memories of those they meet while traveling. The novelty of the situation tends to cement impressions. Mr. Clinton's claim that he remembers nothing of this trip is on par with his claim that he never inhaled.

Why does it matter? Because we already know that Mr. Clinton was an organizer of anti-war protests in London. What we don't know -- but deserve to -- is what kind of war protester he was and how his views have evolved since then.

Opponents of the Vietnam War included a broad spectrum of Americans. Some were practical, believing the war unwinnable and accordingly a waste of American lives. Others, the vast majority, were non-ideological -- simply unwilling to fight themselves. Still others were inflamed admirers of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh who adamantly wanted the Vietcong to win and America to lose.

Where was Bill Clinton? If he was on the radical fringe (as his trip, his role in protests and his faulty memory seem to suggest), how have his views matured since then?

Just as it is relevant to know how someone voted on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to gain insight into their moral reasoning, so it is useful to know where someone stood on another great moral issue of our time, the Cold War. If a person was able to close his eyes to the ghastly human rights abuses and thoroughgoing mendacity of the communist world -- it tells us a great deal about his character and judgment.

This is not to say that just because a youthful war protester may have carried a picture of Ho in a march that he is forever disqualified from high office -- no more than a youthful fling with opposition to civil rights should. But in both cases, we would expect the author of those views to take responsibility for them and explain how his outlook has changed.

Among the questions it would be useful to have answered are these: Why, just a year after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, did Mr. Clinton choose to travel to Czechoslovakia? The communist government there had imposed one of the toughest regimes in the unfree world after 1968. Who issued the invitation to Prague? Did Mr. Clinton attempt to contact or meet any Soviet dissidents during his stay in Moscow? Did he meet any "ordinary" Russians, and if so, was he suspicious of their bona fides?

A number of former war protesters have since revised their views of the movement they were a part of. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, former editors of the radical journal Ramparts, have formed a foundation called Second Thoughts for those who have come to believe that the anti-war movement was in many ways an exercise in anti-American folly.

Someone should ask Bill Clinton just exactly what he thought about the war then. Did he think it was a mistake or a crime? But that is far less important than what he thinks now, in light of history, in light of the boat people, in light of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crackup of communism.

Was the Cold War worth fighting, governor, or do you believe, with Mikhail Gorbachev, that it was a 40-year waste of resources?

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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