FOR President Clinton, Memorial Day weekend threw into sharp relief one of the most difficult issues of his campaign and the early days of his administration: his credibility as commander in chief.
His own draft record and opposition to the war in Vietnam were implicitly on the line in speeches at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on May 31.
"Some have suggested that it is wrong for me to be here with you today because I did not agree a quarter of a century ago with the decision made to send the young men and women to battle in Vietnam," the president said in remarks at the memorial wall. "Well, so much the better.... Just as war is freedom's cost, disagreement is freedom's privilege, and we honor it here today."
His words to the graduates at the United States Military Academy two days earlier took on a deeper criticism of his presidency: that his budget cuts and pledge to end the ban on homosexuals in the military were undermining "the finest military in the world."
David Gergen, writing in U.S. News & World Report on April 5, put the point most starkly: Many in the military are convinced that Mr. Clinton "is on a reckless course that could destroy the finest fighting force in the world, one that has been carefully and painstakingly rebuilt from the ashes of Vietnam." The president, Mr. Gergen wrote, should find better ways to become acquainted with the military.
On May 29, Clinton appointed Gergen as his new counselor. Minutes later, he flew to West Point to deliver a commencement address designed to set this concern to rest.
"We owe it to you to make you the best-trained, the best-prepared, the best-equipped, and the best-supported fighting force on the face of the earth," the president told the cadets.
The talk was laced with West Point history and lore - Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Meuse-Argonne, Normandy, Pusan, the Iron Triangle - as well as self-deprecatory humor. "No one is perfect, of course, as even the president demonstrates from time to time," he said.
The 1,003 graduating cadets were more subdued that those present at Clinton's first graduation address to 164 students at New Hampshire Technical College in Stratham, N.H, many of whom spoke of the president in tones bordering on reverence.
Nevertheless, cadet Cornelius Nash declared it an "excellent speech." Mr. Nash, who went to school in Arkadelphia, Ark., three towns up the road from Clinton's hometown of Hope, added, "He stayed away from controversial issues."
For this Academy sophomore, the most controversial issue is the pace of change, especially on the issue of gays in the military. "The Army has gone through so much change now with drawdowns and cutbacks, ... [that] to introduce another change could be detrimental," he said.
Cadet Richard Meyers, from Indianapolis, picks up the point: "It scares a lot of people because we came with one set of beliefs and are leaving with something that could be different."