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Respect the commander in chief

Air Force Maj. Gen. Harold Campbell showed more than a lack of judgment in ridiculing President Clinton as a "draft-dodging, pot-smoking, gay-loving, womanizing" commander in chief. He also demonstrated contempt for civilian authority over the armed forces.

For his extraordinary affront to the president _ a violation of military regulations _ the general has agreed to retire July 1 and to accept a fine and a letter of reprimand. What the general did was a court-martial offense, and he is fortunate neither the White House nor the Pentagon wanted to drag out the case and risk making a martyr out of him among other military officers and enlisted personnel who also harbor ill feelings toward the president.

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Merrill McPeak, said the disciplinary action against Campbell "will sustain integrity and respect for the chain of command."

A breakdown in the military's respect for civilian authority has serious implications for the republic. It's too bad President Clinton did not feel confident enough about his standing with the military to personally strip Campbell of his two stars. Unfortunately, Clinton's relations with the military are seriously strained. Among other things, his avoidance of the Vietnam draft and his effort as president to lift the military's ban on homosexuals have earned him the disdain of many senior officers and enlisted personnel alike. The White House and the Pentagon were sensitive to the fact that the general is a decorated former fighter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam at a time when Clinton was protesting the war and going to great lengths to avoid the draft.

"For me, personally, I didn't care," Clinton told reporters a few days ago. "People say whatever they want to say about me personally. But for a general officer to say that about the commander in chief, if that happened, it is a very bad thing."

It did happen, and it was a very bad thing. The general unloaded on his commander in chief in a speech to 250 American service members and their spouses at an awards banquet outside a Dutch air base on May 24. Did Campbell really believe that his insult to the president would go unreported? Or is his animosity toward Clinton so strong that he didn't care?

One fellow officer told the New York Times he thought Campbell intended his remarks as an "ice breaker." Career breaker is more like it.

This is not the first time members of the armed forces have mocked the president. When Clinton visited the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt earlier this year, sailors on the ship ridiculed and criticized the president in comments to reporters.

Whatever military men and women think of Clinton personally, they are duty-bound to show respect for the office he holds. If that's a problem for them, they should return to civilian life.