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Focus on Clinton Raises Question about Bush Campaign Character

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

For months, aides to President Bush have tried to make character the central issue of the presidential campaign. But in attempting to focus attention to Bill Clinton's 1969 trip to Moscow during the Vietnam War, Bush has raised potentially damaging questions about the character of his own campaign.

Vietnam has stalked Clinton since early last winter, when discrepancies in his draft record and his conflicting statements on the subject nearly tripped up his candidacy before the first votes were cast. Just beneath the surface of the controversy over Clinton were some old antagonisms and arguments over the war that still remain unresolved.

Republicans have attempted to revive and expand the draft issue this fall, as a surrogate for questions about Clinton's character and credibility. But it was not until this week that they moved the issue to a different level by invoking the old specter of anti-communist suspicion and innuendo that marked American politics of an earlier era.

Aides to Bush tried to back away from suggestions that they were attempting to bait Clinton about communist ties as a student war protester, but they insisted Clinton was not telling the full story of his involvement in opposing the war. Clinton advisers, who struggled all week to deflect an issue that was lurking on the edges of the campaign, appeared relieved that Bush's comments on "Larry King Live" had given them the vehicle for fighting back.

Democrats like Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) Thursday denounced Bush for McCarthyism and "red-baiting," phrases that seemed almost ironic coming more than a year after the collapse of communism. Privately, Republicans groaned that Bush and his campaign appeared so desperate that they were trying to portray Clinton as a communist dupe to win the election.

What provoked Bush to step into the issue personally remains a mystery. Perhaps it is combination of his inability all fall to crack Clinton's lead in the polls and -- when he attacks Clinton for demonstrating against his country's policy on foreign soil -- his own beliefs about patriotism and Vietnam. He told reporters Thursday morning he was saying something that was "on his heart."

In 1988, Bush showed that there was a difference between his personality as a candidate and the personality he adapted once the campaign was over. He demonstrated a willingness to engage in slashing tactics against Michael Dukakis but once the campaign was over attempted to put that behind him by calling for reconciliation. Once again, the country sees the contrast between the two Bushes -- one a patrician gentleman and the other a brawler who said at the beginning of the year he would do whatever it takes to get elected.

The differences between Clinton and Bush on Vietnam are as stark as the fights between fathers and sons at the height of the war, as clear as the conflict between a World War II generation raised on duty, honor, country and the `60s generation whose opposition to Vietnam sometimes resulted in violent protest.

Bush's conflict with Clinton may be rooted in the fact that Clinton not only did not serve in the military, but engaged in anti-war protests, sometimes as an organizer of demonstrations while in England on a Rhodes scholarship.

"Maybe I'm old-fashioned, Larry," Bush told King Wednesday night. "But to go to a foreign country and demonstrate against your own country when your sons and daughters are dying halfway around the world -- I'm sorry, I just don't like it. I think it is wrong. I think it is wrong to do that."

Clinton is hardly blameless in the controversy. It has taken much of the year for his draft history to dribble out, and he has given inconsistent statements about the degree to which he was an organizer of anti-war protests in England.

In his now-famous 1969 letter to Col. Eugene Holmes, head of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, Clinton wrote that he had helped organize two demonstrations in England that fall. Thursday, he said the only organizing he did was to help put on a teach-in at the University of London. But throughout his campaign he has never suggested that he was anything other than a passionate opponent of American policy in Vietnam during the late 1960s.

Nonetheless, each inconsistency, whether on how he escaped the draft or how much involvement he had in the anti-war movement, has given the Bush campaign ammunition to hammer the Democratic nominee.

Prodded by such conservatives as Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), the Bush campaign is now attempting to portray Clinton as a major leader of the anti-war movement, with the suggestion that he had ties to international protest leaders and communists.

"Larry, I don't want to tell you what I really think because I don't have the facts. But to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, (and) not remember who you saw in Moscow. ... I'm just saying level with the American people on the draft, on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his own country from a foreign soil. Level."

Clinton said Thursday he participated in no anti-war activities in either Moscow or Prague and visited Czechoslovakia to visit a family of a boy he had competed against in basketball.

It's unlikely that the gulf between Bush and Clinton on Vietnam can ever be resolved -- each is in a way hostage to his own biography. Despite a sour economy and unpopular policies, Bush remains to many Americans a personally popular figure, and a kind and decent person. But the character issue has taken an unexpected turn and it is Bush, and not just Clinton, who must deal with it now.