On April 19, Bill Clinton spoke to a group of high school students at an MTV Forum, the 24-hour music video channel on which he was to share time with (as The Washington Post put it) those "endearing morons" Beavis and Butt-head. On June 6, he is scheduled to share time with the other leaders of the Western democracies when he speaks in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches by the Allied forces under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. We know what Mr. Clinton said on TV when asked by 17-year-old Laetitia Thompson to disclose his choice in underpants, he responded, immediately and apparently without shame, "usually briefs." But what in the world will he say, or better, considering his anti-military background, what can he say, at Normandy?
We know what ought to be said; we know that the greatest speech in the English language was spoken at a cemetery filled, like that in Normandy, with the graves of men who gave their lives for their country. Of course, no president, whatever his elocutionary gifts, can match what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, but, when the occasions arise, as inevitably they do, and will, every president is obliged to make the effort. So it was probably inevitable that, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, President Ronald Reagan should invoke the memory of Lincoln at Gettysburg.
Standing at the American Memorial in the cemetery where 9,380 men are buried, Mr. Reagan, echoing Lincoln, said no speech could adequately portray their suffering, their sacrifice, their heroism. "Through their deeds," he said, "the dead of battle have spoken more eloquently for themselves than any of the living ever could." We can honor them, he said, only "by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave a last full measure of devotion." Thanks to them, he went on, and to those who fought with them, this land is secure and we are free. "These things are worth fighting -and dying - for." With this, the honor guard presented arms and the military band played "taps" for the dead.
Many of them, no doubt, like some of those at Gettysburg, had been drafted, perhaps unwillingly, into the army, just as many of the next generation were drafted, many (if not most) of them very unwillingly, to serve in Vietnam. But this was not the fate of Bill Clinton. He saw to that.
As Vietnam veterans especially are not likely to forget, he thanked the officer in charge of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas for "saving [him] from the draft." He said the draft system was illegitimate, that "no government really rooted in limited parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose." Then, having made certain that he would not in fact be drafted, and despite the fact that "fine people [like himself]" had come to "loathe the military," he changed his mind, he said. "I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system." Which is to say, he decided to accept the draft (while knowing that in fact he would not be drafted) because he feared that his fellow citizens might, in some future election, look askance at a draft-dodger; he wanted even then to be president, and for that he would need their votes.
In this, at least, he succeeded. He is now our president, and what Shakespeare's Henry V said of kings is true as well of presidents; like it or not, they have ceremonial duties to perform. ("What infinite heart's-ease/Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!/And what have kings, that privates have not too,/Save ceremony, - save general ceremony?") And by no means the least of those duties is that of speaking over the graves of those who have died in their country's service. Presidents especially are obliged to honor the dead in battle; they must do this for the sake of the living and those yet unborn, and especially for those who, on some future occasion, will be called into that service. They must do this for the sake of the nation.
Bill Clinton knows the ceremonial duties of his office, and he's an accomplished and seemingly sincere speaker; he demonstrated this on April 27 when he spoke at Richard Nixon's funeral. But, to repeat what I said at the outset, what can he say at Normandy, this man who loathed the military and avoided the draft? Some of us, especially those of us who fought in it and remember friends who died in it, would appreciate being reminded of why World War II had to be fought and won. But what can he say on that subject that we can believe?
Even more to the point, since the day may come when he, too, may have to send young men into battle, what can he say to them, this man who denied the country's authority to "make its citizens fight and die and kill in a war they may oppose"? What can he say that they can believe?
Under the circumstances, it might be better if he pleads a prior engagement and asks the vice president to take his place at Normandy. Al Gore is a boring speaker, but he, at least, would not have to dissimulate.
Walter Berns is the John M. Olin University Professor at Georgetown University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.