If the president's abroad, heat must be on at home

ON POLITICS

May 31, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — ~TC WASHINGTON -- It's a time-honored political axiom that when a president is in trouble or bogged down at home, it's wise to go abroad, where courtesy to a visiting leader is likely to replace criticism and may even produce adulation -- and a rise in the public opinion polls.

Republican and Democratic presidents alike have resorted to this safety valve -- Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, to mention two very obvious cases of chief executives who looked to less critical locales when things got a bit too tough in Washington.

Harry S. Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," but he didn't say where to go, and it doesn't really matter as long as the natives are friendly.

So the advent of the 50th anniversary of D-Day marking the invasion of Europe in World War II is, or should be, a serendipitous opportunity for President Clinton, besieged by Whitewater, Paula Corbin Jones and a cantankerous Congress, to get away from it all, for a time anyway.

Yet once again his lack of a military record, indeed his record as a Vietnam War protester who successfully avoided the draft, makes his approaching trip to France and other European points a potential political hurdle as well as a reprieve from the political perils that have been plaguing him at the White House.

Every time Clinton is engaged in any activity involving the military, the ghosts of his past words and actions hover over him, starting with his pre-inauguration plan to end discrimination against gays in the armed forces.

If he had ever served, many critics in uniform and military veterans said, he would have understood their objections and, in their view, the damage to overall morale in his new policy.

In the end, Clinton had to bow to congressional opposition that led to a modification that didn't seem to please anybody and left him with a political black eye for giving the whole issue such priority consideration at the very start of his administration.

To Clinton's credit, he sought early to confront the ill feeling toward him among many in the military. Less than two months into his term, he visited the crew aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt off Norfolk, Va. -- and for his trouble got some snide remarks from sailors interviewed by White House reporters.

A year ago, an Air Force general serving in the Netherlands, a former fighter pilot and Vietnam War veteran, was forced into early retirement and fined for calling the president a "dope-smoking, skirt-chasing, draft-dodging" commander-in-chief.

Clinton stayed out of the episode, letting a military court decide the punishment.

But he intentionally confronted the criticism, and his past, last Memorial Day by becoming the first U.S. president to commemorate that holiday by speaking at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.

There, too, he encountered some boos and snubs, with some Vietnam veterans turning their backs to him as he addressed the crowd. On that occasion, he said the criticism was appropriate.

"Just as war is freedom's cost, disagreement is freedom's privilege, and we honor it here today," he said.

The criticism continues, much of it petty, as in sniping about the way nonveteran Clinton salutes his military guards as he deplanes from the presidential helicopter.

But there is substantive criticism, too, in the wake of U.S. military operations or feints in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia that have failed to produce conclusive results.

By contrast, the D-Day ceremonies that Clinton will mark in Italy, Britain and France will recall an America that was conclusively triumphant on the battlefield. So there is some political risk in this president going to Normandy and basking in the reflected glory of men who did serve, and die, in a war that was fought and won before he was born.

Ten years ago, President Ronald Reagan, who served in World War II by making training films in Hollywood, did the same on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

On that occasion he milked the event for all it was worth, with staff cameramen taking footage for use in his re-election commercials that fall. Clinton's special circumstances should at

least mitigate against a repetition of that crass public relations gambit.

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