Americans still prefer their leaders in uniform

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The Independent Online
WHEN Downing Street was pondering what to give Bill Clinton as a D-Day gift on his arrival in Britain last weekend, one bright spark came up with the idea of presenting him with a video of Darryl F Zanuck's epic The Longest Day. Given that John Major's original suggestion had been a Surrey county cricket tie, the idea of the video won on points - until somebody in the Clinton camp told Number 10 that Bill and Hillary had in fact watched their own copy of the film recently in a private White House screening, to get into training for Normandy.

As Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces, Mr Clinton has two quite separate problems. One is that he is too young to have lived through the Second World War; the other is that he chose not to fight in Vietnam. Neither disqualifies him from leading the United States. But the two are being confused, to his detriment.

It is true that Mr Clinton is an exception among American presidents in not having fought in some capacity. The other exception was Ronald Reagan, who in the end appeared to have convinced himself, and others, that he had fought his way through the war because he had appeared in so many frontline movies.

But it is empathy rather than acting that is Mr Clinton's forte; and he cannot empathise with something he does not feel part of. As one long-time friend of Mr Clinton told me after the President spoke at Cambridge Military Cemetery last weekend: 'He hates doing this stuff. There is a basic problem here, which is he doesn't know anything about this stuff.'

Inevitably, Mr Clinton was upstaged at Cambridge by Lloyd Bentsen, his Treasury Secretary, who was a twice-decorated bomber squadron commander in the Second World War. The latter gave a stunningly moving personal account of how 'one minute a plane's out front. The next, the one behind is flying through the debris, counting parachutes, praying they're not next.'

'When you hear Bentsen speak it makes you realise just how phoney Clinton sounds on this subject,' mumbled one American in the audience.

On Utah beach, Normandy, two days later, it was even worse. The presence of Robert Dole, the Republican senator who was wounded in combat in the Second World War, raised chants of 'Dole in '96'; Bill Clinton was called a draft dodger. Nor is this liability likely to diminish: the leading Republican candidate for the 1996 presidency, James Baker, who was only 14 on D- Day, served as an expert marksman in the Marines from 1952-54.

Yet, when people refer to Mr Clinton's draft-dodging credentials in the context of D-Day, they overlook the fact that two and a half decades ago, his choice not to fight in Vietnam was seen by his peers as a politically correct act of patriotism. At Oxford he was genuinely liked. When he returns to Oxford today to pick up his honorary degree, he will take tea with the porter of his old college, University College. The last time Mr Clinton visited his alma mater, he was the Governor of Arkansas. Then, the porter greeted him with the words: 'I hear you've been made king of some place with two men and a dog.'

The only Western head of government younger than Mr Clinton, Carl Bildt, of Sweden, said upon their first meeting last year that 'perhaps it takes somebody born after the war to shape the structures of the new world order'. But it might be argued, as Jonathan Eyal does above, that Mr Clinton is not doing that: he is running a talking shop and failing to have a policy on many issues, including Russia. Yet Mr Clinton was elected at a time when America's attention was turning inward to economic issues; to the American people, the economy remains his chief responsibility.

It is in Europe that we tend to pass judgement on American presidents and find them wanting on the basis of this security or that foreign policy issue. But he is not our president. We only think he is because we still expect the Americans to come over here and sort out our problems.

The Wall Street Journal last week printed the headline: 'Clinton Aides Hope D-Day Trip will establish a beachhead with his own uneasy military'. Yet an accompanying poll taken among the general public about how it rated him as Commander-in- Chief showed that things could definitely be much worse. Thirty-two per cent rated his performance as good/very good, 37 per cent as mixed, and 30 per cent poor/very poor. These are figures John Major would envy.

As a speaker, Mr Clinton is known to be able to rise to most occasions. It is not really his fault that D-Day could not be one of them. There was no substitute here for the real thing. As Mr Bentsen noted at Cambridge cemetery, 'Those of us who flew had a job.'

Yet Mr Clinton, who must have had to summon considerable courage to allow Mr Bentsen to speak before him, did almost rise to the occasion at the end of his speech. It was in recognising his duty as custodian of the legacy of the fallen: 'After looking down in sorrow at those who paid the ultimate price, let us lift our eyes to the skies in which they flew, the ones they once commanded. And let us send to them a signal, a signal of our own, a signal that we do remember, that we do honour, and that we shall always carry on the work of these knights borne on wings.'

(Photograph omitted)