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Clinton Releases '69 Letter on ROTC and Draft Status : Politics: Candidate acts to preempt critics. Document shows political ambitions, opposition to Vietnam War.

February 13, 1992|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The path the letter took to ABC remains an issue. Last November, Clinton said, federal officials told his staff that files relating to his draft status had routinely been destroyed years ago. Clinton said he had no copy of the letter, and he charged that its sudden appearance a week before the New Hampshire primary is "no coincidence."

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col Douglas Hart, confirmed that any such documents "should have been destroyed" in 1975, when the period for keeping ROTC and Selective Service records would have expired. Such documents are protected by federal privacy laws.

Koppel said on "Nightline" that he had at first given Clinton the impression that the letter had come from a source in the Pentagon but had later found out that he was mistaken. Reporters for ABC had obtained copies of the letter from more than one source, at least one of whom was a retired official of the ROTC command in Arkansas.

After Koppel had told him that he thought the letter had come from the Pentagon, Clinton had charged that the leak from confidential files provided evidence of Republican attempts to undermine him, a charge that GOP officials denied. During the "Nightline" interview, Clinton said that because Koppel's account had changed, he now has "no idea" whether the Bush Administration was involved in the release.

Koppel said that after Clinton's press conference, he had double-checked with the source that had provided the letter to "Nightline" and had become "satisfied" that the letter had not come from the Pentagon itself.

But the apparent release of the letter by former ROTC officials, who appear to have kept a file on Clinton long after documents normally would have been destroyed, left Clinton's campaign aides frustrated and angry. "It's kind of scary," said Clinton campaign chairman Bruce Lindsey.

At the press conference in which he released the letter, Clinton conceded that "character is an important issue, and so is patriotism." But, he added, "the people whose character and patriotism really are at issue" are those who might use selective leaks to influence an election.

President Bush, he noted, had said in a television interview in December that he would do "whatever it takes" to get reelected. "I take the President at his word."

Clinton and his campaign officials have consistently argued that many of the stories about his character that have surfaced in recent weeks have been spread or fostered by Republican operatives.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Victoria Clark, however, denied any involvement in the release of the letter. "Every time this guy has a problem, he starts whining and crying about the Republicans," she said as Bush campaigned in New Hampshire. "We didn't have anything to do with this."

The impact of the controversy likely will remain unclear for several more days. Initial news reports on local New Hampshire area television stations were largely favorable to Clinton. But by late evening, the TV news shows were describing the incident as a new "crisis" for his campaign.

Top aides said they felt Clinton had no choice but to try to get ahead of the story despite the dangers of fanning the fires.

"The doubts are out there" in voters' minds, Clinton strategist James Carville said. "We tried to talk about economic policy for three weeks. It didn't work.

"In my experience," he added, "if you just lie back and don't defend yourself, you get stomped."

In addition to the doubts it raises about Clinton's character, the draft controversy could damage the Arkansas governor by forcing voters to confront conflicting feelings about the Vietnam War that have never yet been fully vented in the political arena.

In Clinton's case, the questions involve a series of actions beginning in the summer of 1969, when Clinton reached an agreement with Holmes to join the ROTC. As a result, his draft board reclassified him from 1-A to 1-D, thus allowing him to avoid a large draft call in September. A few weeks later, Clinton changed his mind, and in late October, the draft board once again reclassified him 1-A.

Shortly after that, Congress approved legislation changing the draft system to a lottery. On Dec. 1, the lottery took place, and Clinton's birthday drew number 311. In the end, no one with a number higher than 195 was drafted.

Clinton wrote his letter to Holmes two days after the lottery. Asked if he knew at the time what number he had drawn, Clinton said "I presume" so but added that he had no way of knowing at the time that his number would not be called before the war ended.

Clinton's letter is in the form of a long explanation to Holmes of his actions over the previous several months. In addition to providing new information about Clinton's actions, the letter provides a rare and compelling glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a potential President at a crucial time in his development.

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