Clinton given bad rap on view of military ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 05, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The fad story here over the last week or so has been the one about whether President Clinton can ever find happiness in his relationship with the armed services.

The premise, of course, is that because Clinton himself never served -- and even dodged the draft to avoid serving during the Vietnam War -- he cannot possibly get along with the military leadership and thus is ultimately compromised in trying to force through his plan to revoke the ban on homosexuals in the military.

This putative breach is being reinforced, the story goes, by an attitude of hostility toward the armed forces in the White House. The evidence of this is a widely circulated story about how Army Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey was leaving the White House one day in January and said good morning to a young and unidentified staff member, who said "I don't talk to the military" and proceeded on her merry way.

The notion that such a rash remark from some young staffer should be taken as evidence of the Clinton administration's attitude is, of course, ludicrous. Whatever their failings, the new president and his chief advisers are not frivolous people with faddist ideas about the military or any other group.

General McCaffrey himself, who deals with the White House regularly, has called the depiction of a weak relationship with the administration "a grossly unfair rap." In an interview with the Washington Post, he said that, to the contrary, the relationship is as good as it was with the Bush White House in its last year.

But that hasn't stopped the story from being given wide circulation. Ross Perot, not always the most careful purveyor of the facts, blithely repeated it the other day in an appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The story about General McCaffrey is not the only one being retailed in the capital these days. Another, not true, is that Hillary Rodham Clinton banned uniformed military personnel from the White House.

The real story here obviously is that opponents of gays in the military are trying to establish that Clinton simply lacks the credentials to make the decisions of a commander in chief. And that is what is ultimately ludicrous.

The idea that a president needs to have had military experience himself simply doesn't hold water. The nation's greatest wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, never served. Others have had the experience of serving as young men decades before they ever reached the White House. Anyone with that history understands that spending two or three years in the military doesn't necessarily provide anyone with a penetrating insight into the mind of the military professionals.

If this logic were followed, a president would be disqualified from making decisions about health care because he has never been a doctor or health insurance salesman.

The assumption in that case is that a president has available to him expert opinion and has the judgment to decide whether to accept or reject that expert advice. But in this case the presumption of expertise is accorded not to Clinton but to an opponent of gays in the military, Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, perhaps because he served briefly in the Coast Guard.

Moreover, the military is going to have to get used to the idea that presidents come to office without having served. Within another election cycle or two, there aren't likely to be many, if any, candidates who were old enough to have served even in the war in Vietnam that Clinton avoided. The only potential presidential nominee in 1996 with heavy military credentials is Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who was severely wounded in World War II and will be 70 years old in July.

There are, nonetheless, reasons beyond the gays-in-the-military issue for reservations toward the administration within the military. For one thing, Clinton is in the position of presiding over a major downscaling of the armed services that will close many bases and force many career military people back into civilian life. That is one of the facts of life in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

But the proposition that this is an administration implacably hostile to all things military simply doesn't hold water.

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