Salutes are stiff as Clinton struggles to pacify troops ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 10, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's maiden visit to the Pentagon the other day drew the obvious conclusion that he was seeking more than the latest intelligence about the state of U.S. security around the world. As a man who once wrote that protecting his "political viability" ruled out being an out-and-out resister during the Vietnam War, Clinton knows that he must court the military assiduously if it is not to be a thorn in his side throughout his White House tenure.

His task is greatly complicated by the urgent priority he gave to ending discrimination against gays in the military and by his plans to cut defense spending more deeply in the aftermath of the Cold War than proposed by his predecessor.

Prominent within the armed forces is the attitude that the new president, not having served in uniform, just doesn't grasp the concerns of the average serviceman or servicewoman.

The resentment toward him is seen in small ways, from the mocking comments made to reporters by sailors when he visited an aircraft carrier last month to the snickers that are heard when television viewers in a bar see him stiffly returning the salute of a military honor guard. Clinton clearly has a long way to go before he is truly accepted by men and women in uniform.

When an Army general, Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, reported being snubbed at the White House by someone who may have been a Clinton staff person, the incident was read by some as evidence of a general attitude of disrespect toward the military generated by the president himself -- a reading that McCaffrey immediately rejected.

Still, the White House felt it prudent to have the president seen jogging in Vancouver with McCaffrey during the summit meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. And to top it off, McCaffrey found himself promoted to a new job, director of long-range planning for the joint staff, the bureaucracy that supports the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon in announcing the move said it had been in the works long before the alleged snub at the White House, but the impression was otherwise.

This is hardly the first time that a new president has found himself on the outs with a major constituency. Over the previous 12 years, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush had their problems with black political leaders, and by and large they dealt with them by closing the White House door in their faces. Clinton at least is trying to improve communications with the military community -- while persevering in policies that are very unpopular within it.

The real test for Clinton in his relationship with the armed forces ,, may never come until he is obliged to make a decision that will put significant numbers of them in harm's way. Appearing before the National Guard Association during last fall's presidential campaign, then-Governor Clinton cited his dispatch of the Arkansas National Guard to deal with emergencies, but that is hardly the same.

Clinton had reason to hope during that campaign that his failure to have served in the military was behind him.

After the stories about his draft record broke during the New Hampshire primary, and after his defense on ABC News' "Nightline," polls indicated that voters were satisfied with his explanation or didn't think something that had happened 23 years earlier was relevant to a campaign over contemporary problems facing the country. In the end, he even won a majority of the military veterans' vote.

But his decision to make an early issue of the matter of discrimination against gays in the military, at the same time he was asking the military to swallow cutbacks, caused that difficult campaign history to be revisited.

During the campaign last fall, strategists for Bush considered running ads quoting Clinton's phrase in his famous 1969 letter to the head of the University of Arkansas ROTC, about "how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military."

They decided that it might backfire, and so they didn't run the ads. But the phrase appears often now in stories about Clinton and the military, requiring his continued courtship to overcome the reservations about him to which he has only added since taking office.

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