WHEN THEY start talking about sending ground troops into Kosovo, they are talking about my nephew, Rudi.
Rudi has been a Marine for only a matter of days. He enlisted during spring of his senior year in high school and departed last August for Parris Island and the legendary crucible of Marine training. The military was not a default decision for Rudi. After an exemplary career in high school ROTC, he never wanted anything else.
He finished basic training in fine form, and returned home for a brief visit at Thanksgiving, walking that ramrod-straight Marine walk. But underneath the crisp uniform, he was still Rudi: funny, silly, warm and loving.
I cannot say that I love Rudi as much as his mother does, but only because I would not dare say such a thing about any other woman's child. But I love Rudi in a way that defies expression.
I told him that I wanted him to be one of those Marines stationed at the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy near my home in Annapolis, the ones who ask your business and then wave you through the gate to soccer camp or basketball camp on academy grounds.
"I want you to be one of those polite Marines," I told Rudi. "They look just wonderful in those uniforms and those white gloves."
Rudi laughed at me and pointed to the poster on his bedroom door. It was of a ferocious Marine wearing camouflage and face paint and carrying a huge gun. "Smart Weapon," was the poster's caption. That's the kind of Marine Rudi planned to be.
Now, Rudi's boogie board and his paint-ball gun are sealed in his locker at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and his car is locked away in a secure lot. The child is now a man, and he has, literally, put away a child's toys. His bags are packed and he is awaiting his orders. All he has to do is put his toothbrush in his pocket.
I have talked to Rudi, and he is fine and excited. But I am not, and it is not just because this little boy I love beyond words may soon be in harm's way.
I am afraid because the man whose decisions could put him there is a man who is operating without his closest and most trusted adviser.
I feared that the impeachment of President Clinton would cripple his work on the social agenda I share. I told myself that his trial was the political manifestation of a generational war over sexual taboos. That his enemies, frustrated in every other attempt to defeat him, had found the perfect vehicle in the country's ancient, unresolved sexual hang-ups.
But Monica, the impeachment crisis and the allegations of rape by Juanita Broaddrick that followed immediately after have cost President Clinton more than his credibility with Congress.
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rock, his champion, his better self, his best adviser, has moved out, in spirit if not in fact.
During a ski vacation in Utah to celebrate Chelsea's 19th birthday, the president was holed up reading while his wife and daughter took to the slopes, and the first couple left the enforced togetherness and returned to Washington the minute Chelsea returned to Stanford.
Hillary then failed to accompany Clinton on a diplomatic trip to Central America and to Arkansas to dedicate his boyhood home, pleading a bad back. However, she was well enough to ride camels with her daughter during a subsequent trip to Africa.
She less frequently attends church with him on Sundays and White House sources are quoted anonymously as saying the president and his wife barely speak.
"I don't want to be in the same room with him, let alone the same bed." That quote, attributed to the first lady, made headlines all over the world.
What I think is this: A world leader shown to be of monumental bad judgment has probably had the struts knocked out from under him by his wife just as he faces a decision about committing American ground troops to a certain quagmire.
It is the kind of decision that requires the courage of leadership, and leaves that leader lonely in a way that can only be mitigated by a loyal life partner.
The complex crisis of Kosovo, the lives of soldiers and the fate of wretched refugees rest on the judgment of a man who has shown a frightening lack of it in the one area of his life where we might have expected him not to make careless mistakes -- his family, his wife and his daughter.
And it is this love and support -- and in Hillary's case, the wisdom -- which his terrible behavior now denies him.
I fear President Clinton's decision-making in this crisis, and not because he protested the Vietnam War and never served in the military. The lessons of Vietnam will make him wiser, and he has plenty of guidance from men who know much more about war than he would have learned during a two-year hitch.
No. I fear his decision-making in this crisis because the man may have brought upon himself the supreme isolation. He has betrayed the two people he should have been able to count on beyond all others, and he has no one to blame but himself. If he is not distracted and wretched in this loss, he should be.
It may be that Rudi will do no more than hand out bread and water bottles to Kosovar refugees while standing safely inside the borders of Macedonia or Albania.
I pray this is so.
But with the same breath, I curse the confluence of ambitions that put a boy doing the only thing he wants to do under the command of a man who has betrayed and lost the adviser he trusted most.
Pub Date: 4/13/99