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Anti-War Activists Call Clinton Role Peripheral : Protests: Many who now support nominee say he sought moderate path, was more interested in politics.

October 10, 1992|JIM MANN and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The gathering was at an estate on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1969. It was, by the account of participants, a reunion of veterans of the 1968 Eugene J. McCarthy presidential campaign for a few days of swimming and touch football.

Among the hundreds traveling to the island off the Massachusetts coast was a young Southerner named Bill Clinton. He seemed more politically conservative than most, a bit mistrusted by those at the reunion who were firmly committed to the anti-war protest movement. "He was much more on the political operative side than the protest side," recalls author Taylor Branch.

Now, President Bush's campaign is focusing on this and other events from more than two decades ago in a bid to draw attention to the Democratic presidential nominee's role in the Vietnam anti-war movement and raise questions about his character.

In a series of television appearances and press releases this week, Bush campaign officials have spotlighted Clinton's anti-Vietnam days, in effect broadening their earlier attack on his attempts to avoid being drafted and on his visit to Moscow while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.

Clinton "played fast and loose with his 1969 visit to Martha's Vineyard, to meet with anti-war activists," said an official Bush-Quayle campaign press release earlier this week.

Mary Matalin, Bush's deputy campaign manager, also sought to blink Clinton's opposition to the Vietnam War to a trip he made to Moscow as a tourist at the end of 1969. "It is absolutely germane to the voting public to know precisely why Bill Clinton traveled to the heart of enemy territory at the height of the war," she said.

Clinton, now 46, was not unusual in opposing the Vietnam War or publicly demonstrating against it. At one time or another, more than 4 million Americans took part in protests against the far-off conflict, according to a 1984 book on the movement. Despite considerable pressure from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in the late 1960s, the CIA found no evidence that the anti-war movement was directed or influenced by any foreign powers.

"We felt, and believe to this day, that we were deeply engaged in patriotic activities, because we were afraid the country was being torn apart by a war we felt was not in the country's interest," says John Shattuck, who was among those attending the reunion on Martha's Vineyard and who now is a vice president of Harvard University.

Clinton did possess an unusual amount of knowledge about foreign policy for a college student. He had been an aide to then-Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while a student at Georgetown University in Washington from 1964 to 1968. Fulbright was one of the leading critics of the Vietnam War.

Those who knew Clinton at the time generally say he became involved in anti-war organizing activities in the summer and fall of 1969, but participated on the periphery. These friends and acquaintances, most of whom now count themselves as supporters of his presidential bid, say they saw him then as someone who sought a peaceful, moderate path of protest.

In 1968, the first year of his Rhodes scholarship in England, Clinton seems to have been politically inactive. At the time, Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon was assuring voters that he had a plan to end the war, and many Americans hoped it would be over soon. Clinton had just turned 22 years old.

"To my knowledge, in the school year of 1968 to 1969, Bill Clinton did not organize and lead anti-war protests, or even participate in them," says fellow Rhodes scholar Cliff Jackson, the Arkansas attorney who has become one of Clinton's prime adversaries in the disputes over his draft record.

That first year was more a time of studying and extracurricular activities--like seeking out Indian and Chinese restaurants and hitch-hiking around England--than anti-war activism, recalls Thomas S. Williamson Jr., another Oxford classmate and now a Washington attorney. "The whole first year, (protesting the war) wasn't something we did," Williamson says. "We were mainly graduate students."

Clinton returned to the United States for the summer in 1969, as the war continued under the Nixon Administration and the American public grew increasingly impatient to end it.

It was during this period that Clinton became involved in anti-war activities. And when the alumni of the campaign that then-Minnesota Sen. McCarthy had based on his opposition to the war gathered at the Martha's Vineyard home of John O'Sullivan, a former campaign worker-turned-Rhodes scholar named Rick Stearns brought his friend Bill Clinton.

Asked about the gathering during an appearance Tuesday on the Phil Donohue show, Clinton said he went there "because I was a Southerner who was sympathetic with the people who worked for McCarthy."

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