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Vietnam still haunts 'dodger' Clinton

It ought to be a straightforward pilgrimage of remembrance. But President Bill Clinton's week- long trip to Europe, its centrepiece the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, has become a stern test of his credentials as an international leader and as Commander- in-Chief of the US armed forces.

The ceremonies begin in earnest today, when he visits the Nettuno and Anzio beaches south of Rome, where the Allies landed in January 1944, before travelling on to Britain and France. And even as he left the US, he was publicly drawing the lessons of the Second World War, urging his countrymen to show the same resolve as then in handling the challenges of a more complicated world.

That speech on Tuesday, at a monument to a crack US infantry division which spearheaded the Normandy invasion, was one of several 'military' appearances organised lately by the White House, including meetings with veterans and the presentation of medals honouring American troops killed in Somalia. All were designed to project Mr Clinton as a tough, determined leader fit to be entrusted with national security. But here - as perhaps these next few days in Europe - the past and that seemingly inescapable 'character problem' continue to dog him.

For the second successive year, his Memorial Day address at Arlington Cemetery on Monday was marred by heckling. 'Go back to Oxford, you traitor, draft dodger,' a man shouted from an amphitheatre behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His poll ratings are slipping, while domestic press coverage has again turned distinctly unfavourable: just when Mr Clinton must assume the role in which he is least comfortable, that of Commander-in-Chief.

From the moment he came to office promising to lift the services' ban on homosexuals, the first baby-boomer President's relations with the military have been rocky. His aides insist the climate has improved, especially since the replacement of the erratic Les Aspin by Pentagon insider William Perry as Defense Secretary. But a stumble, the slightest careless levity in D-Day week, could ruin everything.

For months White House advance men have been choreographing every event on the programme, to minimise the risk and maximise the benefits for their boss. Mr Clinton, moreover, is no mean orator, and his keynote 6 June speech on Omaha Beach is certain to be effective. Even so, he will be hard put to match Ronald Reagan's epic performance at the same place in 1984, of which Presidential historians still speak in awe.

The very hint of comparison raises hackles among Clinton aides. Parallels, says the White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, are 'too easy,' and 'so cheap'. The circumstances were different: 'The Cold War is over, we have to decide now whether we will turn inward as after World War I, or build on the victory of World War II to win the peace.'

Alas for this President, and despite his internationalist rhetoric, the message he sends is the first. He was born a year after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan. Domestic issues, not foreign policy and defence, are his abiding interest. According to one study, barely 10 per cent of his youthful White House staff have served in the military, compared with 48 per cent of ordinary Americans over the age of 35.

The only war he is associated with - and that by default - is Vietnam whose shadow, however unfairly, will haunt him on the Normandy beaches. It may even spoil the sentimental tailpiece to his trip on Wednesday, when Bill Clinton, the Rhodes Scholar, returns to Oxford. For the Memorial Day heckler and many others here, Oxford is synonymous not with learning, but with inhalation-free pot smoking, academic sophistry and refuge from the draft.