WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, in the latest overture to the U.S. military establishment, delivered a formal address at West Point yesterday, telling the cadets of the Long Gray Line, "You are the very best of our people."
Service academy commencements are traditional events for the commander in chief. But the president's evocative speech yesterday was only one in a series of efforts he has made to reach out to the officer corps and the military families who mistrusted Mr. Clinton even before he took over the White House.
An internal White House memo The Sun obtained Friday reveals that top White House officials also have urged White House staff members to visit military bases. This directive, dated May 7, comes from David Watkins, head of the White House office for management and administration.
"The military office has put together a list of activities that are available to the staff to visit," Mr. Watkins wrote. "I highly encourage all who can, to take advantage of this opportunity."
The first such visits, an official said, are set to begin in a week -- on the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landing in France. The initiative, referred to as "sensitivity training" by one White House aide, was prompted by various news accounts of open hostility on the part of White House officials to military personnel.
Mr. Clinton's broader problems with the military stem from the election-year controversy over his draft record, his insistence on lifting the ban on gays in the military, tension in the armed services over proposed Pentagon budget cuts and a general perception among military people that in this White House they have few friends.
Tomorrow, as part of the White House effort to exorcise those ghosts, Mr. Clinton will risk confronting hecklers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Some conservative Vietnam veterans organized a postcard campaign urging Mr. Clinton to stay away on the grounds that it would be hypocritical for a former anti-war demonstrator to pay his respects to the fallen soldiers listed by name on the memorial's black marble wall.
But advisers to Mr. Clinton, the only post-World War II president not to have served in uniform, believe that the president gains more than he might lose by showing his respect for those who gave their lives in Vietnam.
"He's known from the beginning he has to fix it," one senior administration said yesterday in reference to the military establishment's doubts about him. "It's not just a political problem with him. It's an issue of national security."
Privately, White House officials say they have been concerned about the ramifications of having a commander in chief detested by the military establishment -- especially if Mr. Clinton ever dispatches U.S. troops into battle.
The day before going to West Point, Mr. Clinton quietly phoned some hospitalized World War II veterans in facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia and New York City. The occasion was the kickoff of a project that puts phones in the rooms of elderly veterans.
One of those men Mr. Clinton spoke to, Eugene Young, hospitalized at the Bronx VA nursing home unit, has two sons in the Army, one serving in Italy and the other in South Korea.
"When you talk to your sons," the president said, "tell them that we're proud of them on this Memorial Day weekend."
The president also made sure the veterans knew that his Department of Veterans Affairs is headed by veterans, Secretary Jesse Brown and Deputy Secretary Hershel Gober.
"They are keeping me on the straight and narrow here when it comes to veterans policies," the president said.
Setting example for staff
Mr. Clinton has done more than make a few phone calls, too. He has practiced what he is preaching in regard to encouraging his staff to visit military installations:
* On March 12, the president helicoptered some 75 miles off the coast of Norfolk, Va., to the Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, where he reviewed the sailors, toured the ships and sat on the bridge observing carrier landings.
* On April 1, Mr. Clinton chose Annapolis as the site of a major foreign policy address on Russia and ate lunch with the midshipmen before the speech.
* A week later, Mr. Clinton went to the Pentagon for series of meetings and briefings with the brass. Usually, they come to the White House.
* On May 15, Mr. Clinton went to Andrews Air Force base in Prince George's County for an air show commemorating Armed Forces Day.
* On May 17, on a visit to California. Mr. Clinton landed at the North Island Naval Air Station. The next morning, he went running on the beach at Coronado, across the bay from San Diego, with a contingent of Navy SEALs.
"As you can see, he's been doing these events throughout his administration," White House spokesman Don Steinberg said yesterday.
Even when he makes an effort, there has been tension, however.
Most of the 5,500 sailors aboard the USS Roosevelt didn't even come below decks to hear Mr. Clinton speak. And of those who did, many did not bother to applaud. Those interviewed overwhelmingly expressed skepticism about Mr. Clinton, based on the gay issue.
On the beach in Coronado, Mr. Clinton was shaking hands on the beach before his run when he spotted a Marine Corps colonel in jogging clothes with a T-shirt reading: "Bill. No gays in my Marine Corps."
When he came to the officer, the president abruptly told aides, "We gotta go," and he wheeled around, leaving dozens of hands unshaken.
"The timing of the gays in the military thing wasn't controlled by us," a senior administration official said yesterday. "But it wasn't a great way to say hello to these guys, I'll grant you that."
Adding to the military's misgivings were reports about how White House staff members had shown open disrespect, even contempt, for the military.
At least one of them turned out to have at least a grain of truth: Shortly after Mr. Clinton took office, Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a highly decorated Vietnam War hero and a division commander in the Persian Gulf war, said hello to a woman in the West Wing, who curtly told him that she didn't speak to people in uniform.
This story circulated in the military community and finally showed up in news media accounts in mid-March.
The president and other White House officials initially denied that the story was true, later shifting their explanation to say that perhaps the woman wasn't on the Clinton administration staff. But some officials were upset by the episode.
"It was too late for us to find out who did it, but we wouldn't have been shy about handling it," said Anne Edwards, a White House aide who comes from a military family. "I would have probably run over the person in my truck."