Clinton can thank his stars for Colin Powell

Sandy Grady

April 13, 1993|By Sandy Grady

FOR Bill Clinton it was a guerrilla raid deep into hostile territory studded with snipers and minefields.

No, his advance team didn't book Mr. Clinton for a tour of Sarajevo under mortar fire.

But the way things have gone his first 11 weeks, this trip was almost as dicey.

Mr. Clinton ventured across the Potomac on Thursday and strolled the halls of the Pentagon for the first time as president.

Sure, for his predecessors from Truman to Bush, a Pentagon trip was a ho-hum deal. Respect was guaranteed.

They were spending big-time on the Cold War. Heck, it was their military.

The story, for instance, is told of Lyndon Johnson on a Vietnam tour being directed to his helicopter by a young private.

"Son," snapped LBJ, "they're all my helicopters."

But the relationship between Mr. Clinton and the military has been a witches' brew marinated in dumb timing, cultural enmity and bad luck.

In truth, few military personnel uncorked champagne the night Mr. Clinton won. He wasn't one of theirs. They couldn't forgive Bill's draft evasion. Or the famous words he wrote 24 years ago -- sympathy with Vietnam-era friends for "loving their country but loathing the military."

That word "loathing" stuck in a lot of craws, especially when Mr. Clinton announced his plan to allow homosexuals openly in the military. In barracks and shipboard messes, Mr. Clinton was as popular as Saddam Hussein.

Then came The Snub.

Army Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey is a lean, mean fighting machine. Decorated in Vietnam. Commanded the 24th mechanized infantry division in Desert Storm. By his own account, General McCaffrey was leaving through a White House gate after a meeting with White House officials one day in January when he passed a young woman, still unidentified but presumed to be a White House aide.

"Good morning," said the general.

"I don't speak to the military," she snarled and stomped away.

The tale -- Mr. Clinton at first denied it -- became lore that spread like wildfire.

It added flames to the myth that the rock-'n'-roll generation in the White House and its Boomer President hate the military.

Other rumors fed the fires: that Hillary Clinton banned uniforms from the White House, or Chelsea refused to ride to school with a military driver (both false). Even earlier, while wearing his commander-in-chief's jacket, Mr. Clinton was openly mocked by sailors aboard the carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

Fueling the contempt was worry about military jobs. As the first post-Cold War, budget-bashing president, Mr. Clinton was certain to hand out pink slips that ended careers.

Instead of "Hail to the Chief," some troops were muttering "to hell with the chief."

Could this marriage be saved?

I think Bill Clinton had one enormous stroke of luck -- that Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, postponed his retirement a few months until the new president got settled.

Even though he went head-to-head with Mr. Clinton on gays in the military, General Powell understands in his bones: Civilian leaders rule the military. A savvy, broad-gauged man, General Powell was impressed with Mr. Clinton's gifts as a politician. Those morale-sapping rumors troubled him.

So the rapprochement -- really an uneasy truce -- between Mr. Clinton and the military is cranking up.

No coincidence that Mr. Clinton was photographed jogging with General McCaffrey, target of The Snub. The general was quoted saying, "Things are as good, perhaps even better, between the White House and military than in Bush's last year."

No accident that a TV pool filmed Mr. Clinton walking the Pentagon corridors on his way to "the tank," the leak-proof sanctuary where the Joint Chiefs plot.

Always a smiling, joking General Powell was at Mr. Clinton's side, smoothing the way for the new kid on the block.

Mr. Clinton listened as the Chiefs gave him a "tour of the horizon," future trouble spots. Hmmm. Any roughhouse language about gays? "The subject only came up twice in passing," said a Clinton spokesman.

But you can bet that money came up often. Mr. Clinton's doubling Pentagon cuts to $127 billion between now and 1998.

Nobody knows how many aircraft carriers, Stealth fighters or Army divisions must be slashed. Even Defense Secretary Les Aspin admits, "We're just treading water." But those pink slips hype resentment against Mr. Clinton.

President Bill, surrounded by military braid and ribbons, said his budget would make things clear. "There's a lot of uncertainty, as you know better than I do."

Like an amen choir, the Chiefs chorused, "Absolutely!" "Right!" and "Yes, sir!"

Face it: Mr. Clinton still seems a misplaced tourist in a military setting. His once sloppy salute is crisper. But unlike Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter or Nixon, his smooth, amiable personality fits oddly among professional warriors. Mr. Clinton's an actor we don't yet trust in a star role.

His first military crisis will change that. No wonder General Powell is hurrying the education of his rookie commander.

Unlike some of his sneering, rebellious troops, General Powell knows the score: Civilian leadership calls the shots in America.

Bill Clinton can thank his stars -- the ones he never wore -- for Colin Powell.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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