The Blog

COURAGE? BILL CLINTON?

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By CARL M. CANNON
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At the start of his most recent bus trip -- this one down the Washington and Oregon coast -- President Clinton stood in a steady Northwest rain giving his standard stump speech to a few thousand hardy Democrats assembled at Seattle's Pike Place fishmarket.


The best view in the house was from the press filing center, on the second floor of a building that overlooked the square. Understandably, a handful of onlookers wandered inside the press area, including an urchin named Colin Goodman, who was looking upon Bill Clinton with genuine awe. Together we noticed the president turn down the offer of an umbrella and remove a baseball cap someone had given him. I wondered aloud why Clinton was doing that. "He's the president," young Colin piped up. "He's brave!"


Personal courage seems like a logical issue to arise in the 1996 presidential campaign -- specially when the two candidates are Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. And so it has, but not the way one might have expected. Colin is only nine, so his enthusiasm for his president is understandable, but those of us who have been traveling with the candidates have heard a lot of talk about courage. Almost all of it has come from Democrats.


In every town, every state, and every event, the warm-up speakers introducing the president, reading carefully from White House-provided texts and talking points, have stressed Bill Clinton's "bravery" and Bill Clinton's "courage." On the bus trips, when Al Gore is along, these speakers then turn over the microphone to the vice president, who adds "toughness" to the courage riff. Recently, the president himself has taken up the theme, gently touting his lionheartedness in interviews.


"I just read a book called Undaunted Courage," Democratic representative Timothy J. Roemer told a crowd in Michigan City, Ind., at the conclusion of Clinton's August train trip. "On welfare reform, the president showed undaunted courage?


Earlier that day, Michigan anti-smoking activist Kathy Block warmed up a crowd standing by the railroad tracks by telling them, "It takes great courage to take on the tobacco companies!" In Battle Creek, Mich., Mark Schauer, a local Democrat running for the state legislature, perhaps overcome by the town's name, not only used "courage" and "bravery" to describe Bill Clinton's actions on Medicare, but even ad-libbed a little. "This president is tough, battle-tested," he said.


Now "battle-tested," unlike "courage," has a meaning that is quite specific. Bob Dole is battle-tested. Literally. Clinton, by contrast, received his draft notice in 1968, though he denied for years that he'd gotten one. He kept his hometown draft board at bay by joining the ROTC. In 1969, when the draft was curtailed, he dropped out of that program. He took his chances in the draft lottery that year, although, just in case, he called on an uncle, Raymond Clinton, to see about a billet in the naval reserves. He dropped that plan after getting a high lottery number. He went to England, where he participated in antiwar demonstrations.


Some of the Clintonites present had the decency to look sheepish when they heard the term "battle-tested" applied to the president. But not for long. The entire trip in August was an exercise in celebrating -- and devaluing -- bravery. During the first two days, the president would introduce people the campaign had dubbed "local heroes." A couple of these people surely qualified, especially the paralyzed cop shot years before in the line of duty. Others were just, well, people: Someone who started a business. A mom who got off welfare. A woman whose heroism seemed to consist of her persistence in writing Bill Clinton in 1992 and urging him to visit her town.


At the Grand Canyon in mid-September, University of Colorado professor Charles Wilkinson said in his warm-up speech that it took "presidential courage and wisdom and vision" for Clinton's predecessors to set aside America's crown jewels such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. Clinton, he said, was following the legacy of greats like Theodore Roosevelt in designating 1.7 million acres of federal land in Utah for protection. Those present, Wilkinson told the crowd, were "blessed" to be able to witness "the brave act about to be made."