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Bill Clinton's draft status is a legitimate issue

Bill Clinton's new strategy is to portray himself as a victim of dirty politics.

First, it was an assault on his character by the scandal-mongering press. Now, it's a "Republican attack machine" that's out to destroy the Democrats' most "electable" presidential candidate.

Voters will have to decide for themselves whether Clinton manipulated his local draft board to avoid conscription at the height of the Vietnam War. But before you feel too sorry for the aspiring commander in chief, remember that he's not the first presidential candidate or public official called to account on this issue.

Four years ago, the news media ran with the story that Pat Robertson, the television preacher who ran for the Republican presidential nomination, used his father's political influence (the elder Robertson was a U.S. senator from Virginia) to avoid combat duty in Korea with his Marine unit. More recently, during the Persian Gulf war, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney took some flak for having taken advantage of student deferments to beat the draft.

And, of course, the question of whether Dan Quayle used his wealthy family's influence to get into the Indiana National Guard to avoid the draft and Vietnam was a major issue in the 1988 campaign _ and properly so. Quayle says he hopes the draft-dodging allegations against Clinton will get the same kind of scrutiny.

Four years ago, when the press was in hot pursuit of Quayle's character flaws, no rumor went unchased. And reputable newspapers, including some of the same ones shying away from Gennifer Flowers story, recycled reports that Quayle and some of his congressional buddies shared a Florida townhouse with lobbyist Paula Parkinson, who later sold her story to Playboy.

Clinton has dismissed the charge of draft evasion as "an old story" being dredged up by Republican character assassins. The story broke in the Wall Street Journal, not a sleazy tabloid.

When Clinton graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1968, he was classified 1-A, which made him available for military service. But the draft board decided to give him a year's reprieve so he could study at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar.

When Clinton, who opposed the war, returned home after his first year at Oxford, he was again facing the draft. Opal Ellis, an 84-year-old Republican who for 20 years served as executive secretary to the draft board, was quoted in the Journal story as saying young Clinton "told me he was too educated to go" and vowed to "fix my wagon and pull every string he could" to avoid conscription.

The governor denies having said any such thing and suggested that Mrs. Ellis "has, at best, a faulty memory." Did he mean the old woman is senile?

Clinton says he decided about this time to look at his options. He met with Col. Eugene Holmes, an Army ROTC recruiter at the University of Arkansas, and orally agreed to enroll in the university's law school and join the ROTC program. Clinton does not dispute that.

"And based on that consent," the Journal reported, "the Hot Springs draft board, on Aug. 7, 1969, reclassified Mr. Clinton from 1-A to 1-D _ a draft deferment that a spokesman for the Selective Service System says was only for people who had joined a reserve unit, or who were students taking military training, such as ROTC."

Clinton never applied to the University of Arkansas. Nor did he join any ROTC program. He returned to his studies at Oxford and when he came home in 1970, he enrolled at Yale Law School. His 1-D classification saw him safely through September and October 1969, the two months when his draft board had told Clinton he could expect to be conscripted.

Clinton says he developed "doubts about the morality" of his deferment and in October 1969 informed Col. Holmes that he would not be participating in ROTC. The colonel, angry that Clinton had broken their agreement, moved to have the Hot Springs draft board reclassify Clinton 1-A, which it did on Oct. 30, 1969.

Less than a month later, a new draft lottery, based on birth dates, went into effect and Clinton's number came up 311, which was high enough to keep him out of the draft's reach.

Clinton's draft status is fair game in this campaign. The voters will decide if it matters.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times.