The Air Force has fired the two-star general who publicly ridiculed President Clinton, sending a clear signal through the military that Clinton-bashing will not be tolerated.
In a terse, five-paragraph memorandum, the Air Force said Friday that Maj. Gen. Harold Campbell had "violated (military law) by uttering disparaging remarks about the president" last month and would be severely reprimanded, docked almost $7,000 in pay and forced to retire July 1.
The action marked a clear effort by military commanders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak, to quell anti-Clinton sentiment before it threatens the traditional subservience of the military to civilian authority.
In an unusual move, McPeak called a news conference to make the point personally that the military would not brook such behavior by its officers. "The chain of command has to be almost pollution-free," he declared.
The outcome was a victory for Clinton, who kept a low profile in the affair and let the Air Force handle it. Officials said that the White House had pushed privately for a quick disposition and an undramatic punishment to avoid turning Campbell into a martyr.
At the White House, Clinton himself proclaimed his satisfaction with the results, telling reporters that he thought "General McPeak handled it in the appropriate fashion." A week ago, Clinton had expressed chagrin at Campbell's remarks but insisted that he was not offended.
McPeak contended that he was unable to determine precisely what Campbell had said. "The investigating officer got a variety of responses on that," he asserted, "but it seemed to be everyone's conclusion, unmistakably, that the remarks were disrespectful."
Air Force authorities confirmed last week, however, that Campbell was reported to have described Clinton as "draft-dodging," "pot-smoking," "womanizing" and "gay-loving" during a speech May 24 to about 250 maintenance workers at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands.
Air Force officials said the remarks came to light when some of those in the audience were offended and reported the incident to the Air Force commander in Europe. Eventually, the incident found its way to the press.
Campbell, 53, is a 32-year veteran of the Air Force and a highly decorated former fighter pilot who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, flew 1,000 hours in combat and holds dozens of medals, including the Distinguished Service Medal and Silver Star. He was not available for comment.
Although McPeak insisted that the punishment given Campbell was "the strongest . . . that can be meted out" under the circumstances, it was handled under a procedure that allowed both sides to avoid a lengthy _ and potentially embarrassing _ court-martial and stiffer penalties.
McPeak said Campbell "deeply regrets" that the incident occurred. "He agreed he made a mistake and said he was sorry for it," the chief of staff said.