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Bill's character witnesses

When reporters call a presidential candidate by his first name, it usually means they are promoting _ not covering _ that candidate. It happened in 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy became Bobby to the reporters assigned to his presidential campaign. This year, too many journalists already are on a first-name basis with Bill, as in Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Last week in New Hampshire, where primary voters gave Bill a solid second-place finish that saved his wounded presidential campaign, some reporters were doubling as spin artists and character witnesses for Bill.

A Time magazine editor complained that the New York Times had done Bill a terrible injustice by giving prominent front-page treatment to Bill's letter thanking a college ROTC recruiter "for saving me from the draft" during the Vietnam war. Imagine. The nation's best newspaper was berated by this magazine weenie for exercising proper news judgment.

Editors and reporters of the New Republic, a small Washington-based magazine with its effete planted solidly in the Bill Clinton camp, are even more shameless. They joined in the pro-Bill "spin control" efforts after last Sunday's candidate debate. In 1988, the magazine went all out for another southern presidential candidate, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee.

"One of these days we're going to get it right," Hendrick Hertzberg, a senior editor of the magazine, told the New York Times. "But I think Bill's obituary came out a little early. He was pretty good tonight, don't you think?"

One pro-Bill journalist even expressed disgust at the sight of Paul Tsongas, the New Hampshire winner, swimming for the cameras to counter rumors about his health. Seems that Tsongas' body was a turnoff. Another criticism of Tsongas from a pro-Bill reporter: His pants are not cuffed.

I can only assume that some of these journalists, especially the elitists, have personal ambitions that include becoming a confidant of Democratic presidents, a status that would translate into the kind of access and influence they have been denied by Republican administrations.

"They see Clinton as their ticket to punditry," says Bill Kovach, the curator of the Nieman fellowship program for journalists at Harvard.

The journalists who are boosting Bill's presidential run are doing their best to protect their investment. Instead of seeking the truth, they try to explain why Bill's draft history, for example, is irrelevant or unimportant. This virtuous press sees its mission as protecting Bill from the virulent press.

Bill makes the virtuous press' work hard. He has told too many conflicting stories about his draft history. For most of his public life, Bill has insisted that he never tried to avoid military service during the Vietnam War. Even after the Wall Street Journal reported recently on how Bill manipulated his local draft board, the governor stuck to his story. But his 1969 letter to Col. Eugene Holmes, the ROTC recruiter at the University of Arkansas, raises serious questions about Bill's truthfulness.

In his letter, Bill said he signed up for the ROTC program at Arkansas for the express purpose of avoiding the draft. "ROTC was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and the resistance," he wrote.

Bill has said for years that he gave up his deferment because he felt it was morally wrong to keep it while his high school friends fought and died in Vietnam. But in his letter, he said he had decided "to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability."

"I put myself into the draft when I thought it was a 100 percent certainty that I would be called," Bill said when the recent furor broke. But the fact is that he didn't subject himself to the conscription until it became clear that he had a good chance of avoiding the Vietnam draft. Skeptics can compare his public statements to his letter and reach their own conclusions.

It will be a great irony if the South, which is presumed to be more pro-military than other regions of the country, gives Bill the primary victories he is counting on to bury Tsongas. Bill is a gifted politician, a man with many good ideas and detailed policy proposals. But many voters need to feel that he can be trusted. They are troubled by a record that suggests every time Bill has wrestled with his conscience, his conscience has lost.

Southerners have long yearned to play a decisive role in nominating the Democratic Party's candidate for president. In 1992, they have such an opportunity. Bill Clinton's political fate now is in the hands of the New South, not the New Republic.

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

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