Like millions of other young men who came of age during the Vietnam War, Bill Clinton wrestled with his conscience over the question of whether he would allow himself to be subjected to the draft. "To many of us," Clinton wrote the director of the University of Arkansas Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1969, "it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice." Clinton wrote then that no government has the right "to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation."
Clinton is in serious political trouble today because he allowed his long-range ambitions to silence his conscience and cloud his judgment 23 years ago. Rather than choose a straightforward way of expressing his opposition to the draft and to the war, Clinton instead "decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system."
Of course, Clinton, by his own admission, was "saved" from the draft for months by his promise to enter an ROTC program, a promise he chose not to keep. From all appearances, Clinton tried to finesse his way out of the war in 1969 in a way that would protect his chances of getting elected president decades down the road. He assumed that any person who became actively involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era would automatically sacrifice any future national political ambitions. Unfortunately, he may have been right.
So far, though, that assumption has not been put to the test. If Bill Clinton had had the courage of his convictions in 1969 and 1992, we might finally be learning whether a presidential candidate really would commit political suicide by expressing the powerful opposition he or she felt toward the Vietnam War.
Instead, Clinton, like Vice President Dan Quayle four years ago, is having a hard time trying to explain the apparent hypocrisy of his actions during the Vietnam years. Quayle talked like a hawk but used his family's connections to get into a National Guard unit that protected him from the draft and the war. Clinton wrote like an anti-war activist but belatedly chose to subject himself to the draft to protect his "political viability."
Because Quayle and Clinton are among the first of an entire generation of would-be national leaders who reached adulthood during the Vietnam War, this issue surely will recur.
If Americans are honest with themselves and their history, they will be prepared to give their support to candidates who honorably served in that war as well as those who honorably opposed it. They might even decide that they are prepared to support candidates who as young men and women were torn by the same conflicts that Clinton expressed in his remarkable letter.
The immediate questions about Clinton are different, though. In choosing the course that he did in 1969, and in being less than candid in explaining his behavior 23 years later, Clinton may have revealed a telling character flaw: When faced with a choice between doing what he thought was right and what he thought was best for his political career, he compromised himself. And he did so on one of the defining issues by which people of his generation will be judged throughout their lives.
Clinton's 1969 letter refers to an Oxford roommate, "a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again." Clinton said his friend was "one of the bravest, best men I know. His country needs men like him more than they know."
The young Clinton was right. Ironically, the Clinton campaign is suffering today because the country doesn't need any more lifelong politicians who allow their ambitions to outweigh even their strongest personal convictions.