Who is the braver man?: Clinton invokes courage as Dole soft-pedals record

September 29, 1996|By CARL M. CANNON

WASHINGTON - Courage is a much-invoked trait on the 1996 campaign trail, but in the kind of twist that a novelist - or a psychologist - might appreciate, it is being invoked not by the one with the lingering war wounds but by the candidate who never went into battle.

On April 14, 1945, in the closing days of the war, 21-year-old Bob Dole was a platoon leader in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, fighting in Italy. The orders that day called for a small squad to take out a German machine-gun nest. Dole was supposed to remain behind. He changed the orders and led the squad, which was raked by enemy fire.

Dole hid in a foxhole, then crawled out to retrieve his radio man. He was hit, he believes, by shrapnel that tore through his upper body. Sent home in a body cast, Dole spent more than four years recuperating. He maintained the use of only one arm - and suffers from pain to this day.

In 1968, as war raged in Vietnam, Bill Clinton's draft board called. He held it at bay by joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps. In 1969, when the draft was curtailed, he quit ROTC.

He approached an uncle, Raymond Clinton, and asked him to secure a billet in the Navy reserve. When he got a high draft number, he dropped that plan as well.

This information came to light in 1992, when Clinton ran for president. Also unearthed was a 1969 letter that Bill Clinton, then 23, wrote to Col. Eugene Holmes, director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas.

In it, Clinton expressed deep misgivings about the morality of the Vietnam War. He conceded that he had "deceived" Holmes about his intentions of becoming an officer, explaining that his motivation in joining ROTC had been to "maintain my political viability."

Dole's advisers, aware that their candidate's story is much more appealing to voters, have urged him to make it known to voters. When he complies, the old soldier usually mumbles something cryptic such as, "I've been tested."

And for reasons known only to themselves, Dole's strategists have not instructed warm-up speakers to celebrate Dole's war record - even when speaking to military audiences.

The Clinton-Gore campaign has not been so reticent. Everywhere Clinton goes, warm-up speakers, reading their texts drafted by White House speech writers and Clinton-Gore campaign aides, tell audiences how brave Bill Clinton is.

"I just read a book called 'Undaunted Courage'," Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, told one crowd on the Clinton-Gore train trip to Chicago. "On welfare reform, the president showed undaunted courage."

In Michigan, an anti-smoking activist named Kathy Block told a crowd: "It takes great courage to take on the tobacco companies."

In the same state, in the town of Battle Creek, Mark Schauer, a local candidate for state legislature, used the words "courage" and "bravery" to describe Clinton's actions on Medicare, adding, "This president is tough, battle-tested."

And so it goes.

In each state along the train trip, on last week's bus trip down the Washington and Oregon coasts, in campaign events this week in New Jersey and Pennsylvania - and even in ceremonies at the White House - Bill Clinton is routinely characterized in public as a man who is to be recognized for his bravery.

He took great risks in picking fights with the tobacco companies and the gun lobby, they say. He stared down House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Medicare. He showed courage in standing up for children, for the elderly, for the environment.

On the bus trip after the convention, Vice President Al Gore told a group of Kentuckians about sitting beside Clinton in the Oval Office, when the president insisted that he would shut down the government rather than accept cuts in Medicare pushed by Republicans.

"I sat in that room and saw Bill Clinton say, 'As long as I'm president, this will never happen!'" Gore said. "That's the kind of backbone we need in a president."

Two weeks later, at the Grand Canyon, Charles Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Colorado, told a crowd on the South Rim of the canyon that it was "blessed" to be able to witness "the brave act about to be made."

The brave act he was referring to was Clinton's decision to declare 1.7 million acres of federal land in Utah a national monument, a designation that makes it harder to build mines on the land and develop it in other ways.

The land in question is pristine wilderness with untold natural and archaeological riches. Preserving it may be wise, prudent, even inspired. But courageous?

The forces in opposition to Clinton are a foreign mining company and the Republican delegation from Utah, a state where he ran third in 1992.

Webster's "New World Dictionary" defines courage as "the attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult or painful instead of withdrawing from it [the] quality of being fearless or brave."

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