WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton, born two years after D-Day, expressed in his 50th anniversary remarks at the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach the nation's profound appreciation for the sacrifices made there. He spoke not only as the American president and commander-in-chief but also as a member of a grateful generation that has an obligation to "build upon the sacrifices of D-Day's heroes."
His generation's mission, Clinton said, "is to expand freedom's reach farther, to tap the full potential of each of our own citizens, to strengthen our families, our faith and our communities, to fight indifference and intolerance, to keep our nation strong, and to light the lives of those still dwelling in the darkness of undemocratic rule. Our parents did that, and more. We must do nothing less."
The remarks were properly inspirational and respectful from the first American president born after World War II toward the fighting men who enabled his generation to live and grow in peace at home, until the quagmire of Vietnam caught it as it came of military age in the 1960s. As he spoke, the reality of his own lack of military service, an almost constant background static since he took office, was for the moment irrelevant. He spoke for all Americans on an occasion heavy with sentiment, nostalgia and good will.
But one speech does not drown out the static, and in an interview with NBC News the day before, as he headed for the Normandy beaches aboard a U.S. warship, he was questioned once again about the ill feeling of some American veterans of World War II against him because of his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War.
Bill Clinton being Bill Clinton, he had to try to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of his non-service. He said he didn't regret having been opposed to the American involvement in Vietnam but "there are plenty of times when I wish I'd had the experience (of wartime military service), because I, after all, am a child of World War II. I grew up on the war movies," he said.
Then Clinton said: "I think all the people who grew up in my generation were hurt maybe worse than any other generation could have been by their ambivalence over Vietnam, because we all love the military so much."
The choice of words, no matter how heartfelt, immediately recalled what he had written back in 1969 in a letter to the commanding officer of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas thanking him for "saving me from the draft." Apologizing for having "deceived you" about how strongly he was against the Vietnam War, young Clinton wrote about "how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give."
That quote about "loathing the military" has haunted Clinton ever since, and has often been recalled not only by political opponents but also by Americans in uniform. Even taking into consideration that it was written by a 23-year-old deeply and conscientiously opposed to the Vietnam War, it was an unfortunate phrase that he has tried to live down.
Perhaps his statement now "that we all love the military so much" is a reflection of his post-Vietnam experience, as president particularly, that has put him in such close contact with men and women in uniform. But many will view the remark as "Slick Willie" trying to make amends, going overboard from "loathing" to "loving." It may be unfair, but that is the price he pays for developing a reputation over the years of always trying to be all things to all people.
Beyond that, the notion that his generation was "hurt" by having to cope with a war in Vietnam that was not the clear-cut "good war" like the one fought by those he was honoring in Normandy seemed distinctly self-pitying and out of place. It would be better for Bill Clinton, and the country, for him to make an outright defense of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and an outright acknowledgment that he went to considerable lengths to stay out of it, and be done with it.
Except for this lapse, however, the president represented well his country and his generation.