Clinton defies critics to honour dead: President's attendance at memorial during weekend of ceremonies boosts standing with military Clinton defies critics to honour dead

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton, still dogged by allegations of draft-dodging, confronted jeers and placard-waving protests to deliver a controversial, much-vaunted address to veterans at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington yesterday.

The President attended two hours of speeches and remembrance for Memorial Day - the focal event of a weekend of ceremonies in honour of all America's war dead - in spite of requests from several veterans' groups that he stay away, because of his efforts as a student to avoid the Vietnam draft.

Against the backdrop of black granite inscribed with the names of the thousands lost, Mr Clinton - the first president to address veterans at the wall - mostly quietened the few dozen hecklers, declaring: 'Can any Commander-in-Chief be in any other place but here on this day? I don't think so.'

The President, praised by some for braving the protests, won strongest applause from most in the audience by announcing plans to declassify all government records relating to soliders still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam and Korean wars. Protesters waved banners at the President with blunt messages that included: 'Bring on the Hypocrite'; 'Those in the Wall Gave their Blood - Where were You?' and 'Where was Bill, Moscow?'

'He should have come with those troops 25 years ago,' remarked Frank Maher, one of hundreds of veterans visiting the capital for the ceremonies. 'If he didn't come then, he shouldn't be here now.' Similar disgust was voiced by another veteran of the Vietnam war, Joe Tarnovsky. 'We feel great indignation that Mr Clinton came here. To many of us, him being here and speaking today is another wound in our hearts.'

However, an opinion poll for CNN-Time suggested that the President's decision to brave the protests was generally supported: 67 per cent of Americans thought it appropriate that Mr Clinton should speak at the wall, with only 25 per cent saying he should have stayed away.

Efforts to boost his standing with the military included a visit by the President on Saturday to the West Point academy to delivery the graduation address. Politely received by that audience, Mr Clinton pledged not to take defence cuts to the point where America's defence would be jeopardised. At a wreath-laying ceremony earlier yesterday at the Arlington National Cemetery, as at West Point at the weekend, Mr Clinton sought even so to emphasise the link between defending America in the traditional sense and devoting more effort to protecting its economic health at home.

'We resolve in this era of profound change and continuing peril to be ever vigilant against any foe that could endanger us, and against any undercurrent that might erode our security, including the economic security that is the ultimate foundation of our nation's strength,' he said.

Also yesterday, Mr Clinton greeted a friendly crowd of Second World War veterans at the White House. 'This is your house. You have paid the price for it and those you represent made the fact that it's still standing possible,' he told them.

Unveiling commemorative stamps and coins he said: 'We learnt from those early defeats in the Second World War that we must remain vigilant and always prepared to resist future aggression, and that the nations dedicated to freedom must stand together.'

Meanwhile the controversy that has helped contribute to the President's problems with the military community - his proposal to lift the ban on gays serving in the forces - remains unresolved and politically flammable. With the President and Congress due to reach a settlement on the issue next month, a so-called 'don't ask; don't tell' compromise has surfaced, under which military authorities would no longer inquire about sexual preference, but the ban on homosexual activity in the military would formally not be ended.

To the dismay of many gay activists, it is a halfway solution for which Mr Clinton has indicated his support. Unclear, however, is whether serving homosexuals would be subject to punishment for gay behaviour off-base.

(Photographs omitted)