Clinton salutes troops aboard carrier, to lukewarm applause

March 13, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT -- His salute is a little casual, his service record nonexistent and his vision of the military socially expansive, but in a visit to this carrier, cruising in the Atlantic, President Clinton underscored yesterday the fact that he is the nation's Top Gun.

Asked if he had come to inspect the ship and pay his respects to the troops as a way of using symbolism to soften the blow of announcements of further budget cuts, the president replied, crisply, "I think I need to be here because I'm the commander in chief."

In an address to the troops, Mr. Clinton, the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt not to have served in uniform, praised those who were and sought to reach out to them.

"Our armed forces are more than the backbone of our security," he said in his first formal address to U.S. troops. "You are the shining model of our values: dedication, responsibility, a willingness to sacrifice for the common good and for the interests and the very existence of this country."

Aboard this powerful aircraft carrier, steaming its way to the Mediterranean, the general reaction to the new president appeared to be a mixture of pride that he'd visited their ship and grim acceptance that he is changing the Navy, probably forever.

"I've been in for 20 years -- I get out in 49 days -- and I've seen a lot of changes," said Jim Carcich, a law enforcement officer on board. "But more are coming, that's for sure."

The president generated a great deal of curiosity when he landed by helicopter on the carrier deck just before noon. But the applause he received after addressing the men aboard was tepid. While the president spoke, many in the audience stood or sat with arms folded, faces glum. After it was over, many walked away muttering and scowling.

"Is that all -- no question-and-answer period?" joked one Marine after the president finished addressing the military men aboard. Three of his friends laughed knowingly.

There were two unaddressed issues seemingly on the mind of every member of the Roosevelt's 5,500 member, all-male crew: Mr. Clinton's proposals to freeze military pay and to allow gays to serve.

The president mentioned neither of these issues in his address, but in conversations among themselves, the men were not so circumspect.

"Since he's not giving a raise to the military, not everybody in here is exactly happy with him," said Navy Airman Alfredo Renard, a 34-year-old from Puerto Rico.

"There have always been gays in the military, but changing this policy to give them equal billing, so to speak, brings down morale," added Marine Lance Cpl. David Wiser of Philadelphia. "Why change it? This brings the pride in service down a little, especially in the Marine Corps."

Navy Airman Kevin Parson, an 18-year-old from Oriental, N.C., said a common insult among the sailors aboard the ship was to ask another sailor, "Are you in Clinton's Navy?" as a way of questioning his manhood.

Seaman Jeff Zalick, 22, of Cleveland was excited enough by Mr. Clinton's visit that he videotaped the president's entire speech. But he, too, expressed misgivings about openly admitting gays. "In such close quarters, we just don't want them around," he said.

While the president didn't directly discuss lifting the ban on gays, he did address the issue of prejudice, reminding the sailors that they hailed from "every color, every background, every region of our society." They were some who seemed receptive.

Ray Mata, a 23-year-old Marine from San Antonio, said he hoped Mr. Clinton's efforts to reduce the size of the military would allow him to get out a year early because he was itching to go to school, perhaps at the University of Texas.

In reference to the gay issue, Mr. Mata said, "I don't have much to say about that. It doesn't bother me. I'm secure in who I am."

John Spray, the leader of a 17-man platoon of Navy Seals, concurred. "Homosexuality is not a big issue in our platoon," he said. "We know where we stand with each other."

Despite the rather muted reaction, the president's speech, delivered after he viewed dramatic carrier takeoffs and landings from the captain's bridge, was riveting and eloquent and contained several evocative, even soaring passages.

"Napoleon had a standing order to his corps commanders to 'march to the sound of the guns,' " the president said.

"He meant that when the shooting starts on a battlefield, it is & &TC soldier's obligation to move into the fight. Well, today there are different security challenges into which we must march. And, at times, you who serve our nation in uniform may be called upon to answer not only the sound of guns, but also a call of distress, a summons to keep the peace, even a cry of starving children.

"The calls will be more diverse, but our values remain unchanged, our purposes remain clear, and your commitment to serve remains the linchpin in every new and continuing effort."

The president did not shy from the fact that the military will be getting leaner. But in both his speech aboard the Roosevelt and in a similar address that went out over Armed Forces Radio, he pledged, as he did Thursday in Baltimore, that those squeezed out of both civilian and military jobs would not be forgotten.

The president also pledged that those who remained in the service would get nothing but the best, and he saluted the dedication of the nation's carrier fleet.

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