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."
The land in question is pristine wilderness with untold natural and archaeological riches. Preserving it may be wise, prudent, even inspired. But brave? The forces in opposition to Clinton are a foreign mining conglomerate and Republicans in the Utah delegation. Utah is a state where Clinton ran third in 1992. Moreover, the hasty, campaign-trail decision to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Area generated positive front- page stories all over the West as well as spectacular nightly news TV footage of the president signing a proclamation on the glorious South Rim.
What of the other claims to bravery? Certainly the tobacco lobby can be a formidable political opponent for a member of Congress, particularly in a handful of tobacco states. But with anti-smoking ordinances, initiatives, and lawsuits cropping up all over the country, with the polls overwhelmingly in his favor, and with his FDA-provided cover that he was interested only in curbing teen smoking, was the president's action on tobacco really all that courageous? Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, another bogeyman Clinton is said to have challenged at great risk to himself, is losing members, money, and clout. And though the gun lobby can still be a force to reckon with in local elections -- or even statewide in some southern and western states -- there is no longer great risk to a Democratic president in taking on the NRA.
Clinton does have a case regarding last winter's budget fights. It's certainly true that the Republicans were surprised that Clinton held fast on the final numbers, not only with Medicare, but also with some of his pet projects, such as AmeriCorps -- and did so even as House Democrats were blasting him for agreeing to balance the budget even in principle. But " resolve" would probably be a better word than "courage," which is defined by Webster's as "the attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult or painful instead of withdrawing from it . . . [the] quality of being fearless or brave."
Interestingly, Clinton's strongest claim to political courage might lie not in domestic policy, but in foreign policy. On NAFTA, Haiti, the Mexican peso bailout, and even, belatedly, in Bosnia, he appears to have ignored public- opinion polls and just gone ahead and followed what he and his advisers believed were the right, long-term policies that suited American principles and interests. Clinton himself seems to realize this is his best case, because although he mentions foreign affairs only in passing on the stump, in a recent PBS interview with Jim Lehrer, he emphasized these issues while expanding on the courage theme by insisting that he'd repeatedly made the " tough decisions."
To show courage in domestic policy, he could have vetoed the anti-gay marriage law, a bill he hated and denounced. Instead, he signed it at 1:30 a. m. -- literally in the middle of the night -- after returning from a trip on which every speaker lauded his bravery. He signed that bill without comment and made no reference to it in his Saturday radio address. The traveling press corps found out about the signing when White House press secretary Mike McCurry handed them a piece of paper while the president was speaking on a football field before a homecoming game at a high school in South Dakota.
Bill Clinton never played high school football himself, just as he never went to war. But you can still do good for your school by playing in the band and working as student-body president, which is what Clinton did. Bob Dole must understand this, as warriors have since the time of Homer, who said that "even when someone battles hard, there is an equal portion for one who lingers behind, and in the same honor are held both the coward and the brave man." So then why such pains by the Clinton campaign to transform the one who stayed behind into the brave man? Maybe the answer can be found in Stephen Crane's great novel of the Civil War. "At times, he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way," Crane wrote. "He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage."
Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for the Baltimore Sun.