WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton addressing the American Legion reminds us of the chronic horseplayer who says before a day at the track: "I hope I break even. I need the money."
As a man who not only didn't serve in the military but wrote during the Vietnam War of people, presumably including himself, who "find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military," the most Clinton could hope for before this particular group was to break even.
He said as much in his closing remarks. Having expressed his gratitude for his days as a member of the Legion-sponsored Boys' State and Boys' Nation programs, he said that just as he didn't expect the Legionnaires to vote for him because of that, he hoped they wouldn't vote against him because "I didn't serve in Vietnam 23 years ago."
While President Bush, speaking before him, recounted his shared wartime experience with the veterans and basked in the military successes of his first term in Panama and the Persian Gulf, Clinton had to settle for a plea of fairness. Recounting how a previous Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, went before a Southern Protestant ministers' conference and asked them not to deny him their votes because he was a Catholic, the Arkansas governor told the veterans he was "confident you and all Americans will judge me on the real issues, because that is the American way."
Referring to JFK's 1960 appearance, Clinton remarked that "much changes but much remains the same." The two situations, however, were hardly comparable. Kennedy was appealing for religious bigotry to be rejected. Clinton was asking that a very suspect draft record be disregarded by a group of voters to whom military service is its one organizing force. It was asking a lot, but it did at least show Clinton's willingness to confront the issue again -- although without adding any new information to soften his actions.
For Clinton, the task of addressing the American Legion was difficult enough. But having to do so shortly after Bush had taken the same audience on an oratorical tour of some of the U.S. military's finest recent hours under his leadership made it essentially a no-win situation for him.
The president made no reference whatever to Clinton and his non-service and didn't have to. His listeners well knew the story of how Clinton had danced around the draft. Also, the Bush-Quayle campaign cooperated by turning out a timely press release asking Clinton whether or not he ever did receive an induction notice, which Clinton has said he was unsure of.
Clinton, for his part, allowed himself only one slight dig at the president, opening his remarks by noting that it has become "fashionable for some politicians to claim they won the Cold War." But this was not an occasion for the now-celebrated Clinton tactic of going on the offensive. It was a day for saying his piece and getting off the stage, and he did.
In his most candid moment, Clinton reiterated that he had opposed the war in Vietnam in which some of these assembled veterans served and that he still believed that "our policy in Vietnam was wrong" because it divided and weakened this country. But he praised those who served in Vietnam and said he would understand "if any of you choose to vote against me" because he didn't.
Much of his speech, though, was of a pleading nature. He pointed out that such great wartime presidents as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt had little or no military service and even Ronald Reagan, belittled for making military movies during World War II, proved to be a resolute commander in chief. Repeating a line from his acceptance speech, Clinton said of sending young men into battle, "I do not relish this prospect, but neither do I shrink from it." The words, however, did not have near the resonance for this audience as Bush's earlier recitation of how he actually had done so.
In the end, Clinton fell back on some wholesale pandering, assuring the veterans he would take care of their special needs and even telling them that his late father was a veteran. It was a tough challenge, and the best that can be said is that he survived it.