WASHINGTON -- It was the biggest crisis of Bill Clinton's first term and the most violent of his career:
Hundreds of angry Cuban refugees, breaking out of Arkansas's sprawling Fort Chaffee army reservation in 1980, attacked state police and National Guardsmen with broken pieces of sidewalk and even live snakes before being driven back inside by batons and buckshot, where full-scale rioting and burning ensued.
Vastly outnumbered police, meanwhile, kept a worried watch on an inflamed local populace ready to defend family and property with all the guns and ammunition at hand.
Mr. Clinton went to the scene by helicopter, got briefed, backed the use by the state police of deadly force and authorized additional manpower. He demanded more military assistance from the White House and, after President Jimmy Carter dispatched an aide to Arkansas, announced a federal pledge for improved base security and worked to ease area residents' fears.
His quick and calm response, as recounted by state police and National Guard officials, failed to prevent the Cuban refugee issue from becoming an overall political disaster for Mr. Clinton, contributing to his defeat in 1980.
But it offers a clue to how the Arkansas governor, untested in national security, would function in a crisis as commander-in-chief: comfortable with using force and willing to give wide latitude to trusted commanders on the ground.
Mr. Clinton's capacity to command and lead in an emergency remains one of the biggest uncertainties as he stands poised, if polls are correct, to win the White House 15 days from now.
Fueling voter doubts in his closing statement during Thursday night's debate, President Bush urged viewers to imagine a sudden world or national crisis and asked, "Who has the perseverance, the character, the integrity, the maturity to get the job done?"
Mr. Clinton has obscured the image of a draft-avoiding opponent of the Vietnam War by backing Mr. Bush's crisis-management decisions during and after the war with Iraq and assuming a more forceful posture than the president's in protecting Muslims brutalized by Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Asked in an Aug. 10 interview how he would decide whether to put American men and women in harm's way, Mr. Clinton pointed to the Fort Chaffee experience and to his willingness to allow guardsmen to train for potential conflict in Central America.
"I have had to command the National Guard in some very difficult positions," Mr. Clinton told CBS' "This Morning" program. "I had to make a decision about whether to let them train in Central America. I had to call them out to quell [a] riot of Cuban refugees in 1980. I had to authorize use of force in that action, and I did so to try to save lives. I didn't have any problem with doing that. . . .
"I'll make the best judgment I can based on the expert advice I get from military leaders and other leaders and based on what seems to be the right thing to do for the United States at the time," he said.
All evidence indicates that he followed that pattern after the Fort Chaffee riot. The question is whether he could have prevented it in the first place.
A full picture of the episode shows the 33-year-old chief executive as less of a commander than a supporting actor, pushed to the sidelines by competing, uncoordinated federal agencies and unable to get the White House, then controlled by his own party, to act forcefully to prevent violence until it was too late.
The 1980 Mariel boatlift, the sudden mass exodus used by Fidel Castro to empty mental hospitals and prisons, caught the White House, Arkansas and the country as a whole off guard. With Florida overwhelmed, U.S. officials looked elsewhere for sites to process tens of thousands of refugees.
Fort Chaffee was a logical choice. The 72,000-acre Army Reserve camp had been used to process refugees from Indochina in the mid-1970s with such success that even area residents recall the experience favorably.
Mr. Clinton at first seemed to welcome the new influx. After Mr. Carter called him, the governor told a crowd at a courthouse ribbon-cutting that Arkansas and American citizens "must accept our responsibility as the leader of the free world," the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial reported.
Praise from White House
Carter White House officials remember with gratitude his refusal to "demagogue" the issue.
"I thought Governor Clinton was extraordinarily cooperative and understanding," said Jack Watson, then a top White House official and now an Atlanta lawyer. "It was not a good situation politically for him, but he didn't duck. His actions were such that he understood what we were doing and why. He worked with us in every conceivable way to make it work."
But despite White House assurances of adequate security, the situation quickly spun out of control in a nightmare of competing federal agencies not communicating with one another, delays in processing and rising alarm over unruly young men among the 19,000 refugees.
Federal troops and law enforcement officers on the base, acting under legal directives from Washington, refused to use force even when about 300 refugees broke out of the camp and roamed the countryside. Residents, already agitated by news reports of criminals and mental patients on the boatlift, emptied local stores of guns and ammunition.
"The Army had lost control," recalls Dave Lewis, who had been sent by the U.S. Catholic Conference to help process the refugees.
In a visit to Fort Chaffee, Mr. Clinton rebuked the military commander. "He gave a stern warning that if they didn't do something, he was going to have to," Mr. Lewis said. Publicly, Mr. Clinton announced that he was giving the federal government 72 hours to strengthen security.
That deadline passed, and there was another breakout June 1. This time, state police, stationed at the camp perimeter, fired into the air to get the Cubans back inside.
Late in the afternoon, the refugees became more defiant.
"We could see them coming down the main street to the main gate. They were literally pushing the military out of the way. A thousand or so came over the fence," recalled Deloin Causey, the state police troop commander at the scene.
"They threw things. They literally tore up the sidewalk and threw it at us, and tried to attack us with live snakes," he said.
State police, National Guardsmen and local sheriff's deputies at the scene numbered 28. Major Causey, then a captain, radioed for reinforcements from throughout the area, but there was no time for them to get to the scene.
While National Guardsmen, lacking guns, wielded riot batons, police fired into the ground to wound rioters with buckshot. Five Cubans were shot, and several policemen were wounded.
Major Causey said he kept Little Rock headquarters informed and, through it, the governor's office. But Mr. Clinton never gave a direct order.
"I was not taking minute-by-minute orders from anybody," Major Causey said, noting that state law allowed police to use deadly force when lives are endangered. A key aim, he said, was to keep the Cubans away from armed local residents.
When the governor arrived, Major Causey said, "I gave him a quick briefing. He backed me 100 percent. He gave me manpower and authority to spend money to buy things we needed. The moral support meant a lot to us."
Mr. Clinton later met with the base military commander.
Up to that point, said William Cook, a retired National Guard colonel, the governor "had his state police and state militia and very little information." State authorities had no jurisdiction on the federal base.
Mr. Clinton "did a superb job. He kept his cool and managed to get the federal government to work with him," he said. Mr. Cook suspected that up to that point, key information may have been kept from the White House and Mr. Carter by agencies at the camp.
Mr. Carter beefed up troop strength and sent an aide, Gene Eidenberg, who quickly agreed that federal troops had to be able to use reasonable force to restrain the Cubans.
How forceful a role Mr. Clinton assumed in the immediate aftermath of the riot is being debated.
Mr. Eidenberg, who joined with the governor later in meeting local leaders, said Mr. Clinton, publicly and privately, "was very much in control of himself and the situation."
"He was not confrontational with federal authorities, but he was blunt and direct; there was no ambiguity," Mr. Eidenberg said.
But Carolyn McGowan, a Republican who sat at the time on the Fort Smith Board of Directors, maintains that it was U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, who had accompanied Mr. Eidenberg from Washington, who took the lead.
The meetings resulted in better security and improved coordination among state and local agencies. Minor uprisings occurred, but the riot wasn't repeated.
But the changes came too late to prevent an explosion of local resentment. "Only when things were totally out of control did Clinton bother to come and get involved," Mrs. McGowan said.
State Rep. Jerry King, also a Republican, lays the chief blame on the White House and praises Mr. Clinton's action after the riot. But he added, "On the front end, he probably did not handle it in a manner [helpful to] the people of Arkansas."
And Mr. Clinton failed to prevent the federal government from sending an additional wave of Cuban refugees months later. Accounts differ on whether he tried.
Capitalizing on the anger, Clinton challenger Frank White fused it with opposition to an increase in license-plate registration fees into a winning election slogan, "Cubans and car tags," and lambasted the governor for not "standing up to Jimmy Carter."
Joining Mr. Clinton in defeat, the Carter White House took the rap. On a visit to Arkansas, spokesman Jody Powell said Mr. Clinton shouldered the burden "bravely."