Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2005 / 21 Shevat 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The Old Man | "Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire . . ." — Melvyn Douglas as the old man in "Hud".

Funny how lines from an old movie occur to you at a time like this, when you learn of the death of an old soldier who never sought the limelight yet earned a footnote in a presidential campaign. The look of the country does change because of the men we admire. For good or ill.

The name of the family patriarch in "Hud" was Homer, the same as the blind poet who saw so clearly. The clear-eyed old man in this story of our times was Eugene J. Holmes, Col., U.S. Army. He died a month shy of his 89th birthday, and was already retired by the time the presidential campaign of 1992 was hitting full stride.

Bill Clinton was tearing 'em up on the hustings that year, but even then there were doubts about the candidate's character. Various rumors were already out there about how he'd beat the draft. But aren't there always stories in the air about any presidential candidate, especially as he nears the top of the greasy pole?

Two decades before, a younger and more honest Bill Clinton had written a revealing letter thanking the colonel for having "saved" him from the draft — by accepting his application to the ROTC program at Fayetteville. Young Clinton promised the colonel he'd stay in touch. Then he went off and forgot about taking ROTC. Why, sure. He'd got what he was after — his 1-D draft deferment at a critical time.

There is a small vignette featuring Colonel Holmes and his young visitor back in 1969 in one of the better - and most readable — books of social history published in recent years: "Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming." Its theme is the big shoot-out that year between the Razorbacks and Longhorns, a game it still hurts Arkies to think about.

But this book is about a lot more than a game. On Page 46, you'll find a brief but telling description of Bill Clinton's demeanor when he came to see the colonel in Fayetteville:

"In July, during the week of the launching of the history-making Apollo 11 mission to the moon . . . William Jefferson Clinton knocked on the colonel's front door. . . . 'He didn't want to come inside,' Holmes says. 'He wanted to sit out on the curb. I had just met him. I thought he was just a normal, young American guy who would fulfill his duty to his country if it came up.'"

Only later would Colonel Holmes decide he'd been hoodwinked.

But what gets me was young Clinton's hesitating to cross the colonel's threshold. As if he wouldn't be deceiving the old man if he didn't actually go into the house. As if he still had some qualms about what he was doing. It's hard not to like that 23-year-old no-longer-boy, not-quite man. Maybe he still had some vestigial sense of Southern honor that would not let him go inside to consummate the deal. Instead he did it outside, on the back patio.

It didn't take long. It's like old Homer says in that awful, almost last scene in the movie, when all the cattle have to be killed to keep the hoof-and-mouth epidemic contained, and you can almost taste the Texas dust in your mouth and feel it in your eyes as the shots ring out and the slaughter goes on. "It don't take long to kill things," the old man observes, "not like it takes to grow."

The deed done, young Clinton skipped out to Oxford. But he was so proud of the trick he'd played on the old man that he was unable to resist writing that ill-considered letter almost bragging about how he'd carried it off: "I had begun to think that I had deceived you, not by lies — there were none — but by failing to tell you all of the things I'm telling you now." Call it deception without technically deceiving; it would become a familiar pattern.

That long, preening letter was probably the truest and most honest thing Bill Clinton ever wrote. He'd been a precocious Rhodes Scholar when he sent it off to the colonel at the end of 1969. Now it was 1992, and he was his party's candidate for president of the United States. And he was doing his best, which was mighty good, to explain away his draft record.

Whenever another string of his story would unravel, Bill Clinton would explain that everyone, or almost everyone, or "the principals" involved in his negotiations with the draft some 20 years before, were long gone.

How was he to know that Eugene J. Holmes, Col., U.S. Army, was still alive if no longer well? And that the colonel had filed away a copy of that revealing letter, and that it would show up after all these years!

It was like something out of a Southern novel, specifically "All the King's Men" when Jack Burden finally finds the letter that reveals all, and thinks to himself: "So I had it after all these months. For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost."

The colonel's notarized statement in the hurly-burly of that presidential campaign, unlike Bill Clinton's slick explanations, had a rough-hewn, ill-organized sound, much like the tumbling rush of truth itself. The colonel's was a statement about much more than Bill Clinton and the draft; it was about honor and dishonor, and the ever vivid past.

The memo the old man would release to the press was crowded with ghosts. There were his comrades from Bataan and the Death March, "the fine young soldiers whose deaths I have witnessed," and his fellow prisoners of war in those Japanese camps for three and a half harrowing years. The colonel mentioned one young man in particular: his brother Bob, killed during the Second World War and buried in England at 23. That was the same age Bill Clinton was when he was at Oxford.

In the end, none of it would matter, at least not in transient, political terms. The colonel's deeply felt statement was barely out before the Clinton team's defensive ends rushed into practiced action. They tried to depict the old man as unreliable, pitiable, confused: "It is very sad that someone has exploited the failing memory of a fine military leader . . . ." When of course the real problem was that the colonel had remembered all too well.

When the story broke, The Candidate himself was much too busy to comment; he was attending a fund-raiser hosted by Barbra Streisand somewhere out in California and was unavailable. Good move.

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And it worked. In time the colonel's statement was forgotten, as if it had been written on water. It would be recalled only in connection with his death — as one more act of honor in a long and honorable life.

Even in 1992, some understood what the colonel's letter foreshadowed. No, they couldn't have imagined that Bill Clinton would become the only president to be impeached in more than a century, that he would be fined for civil contempt and suspended from the bar, and in a plea bargain that saved him from criminal prosecution, would admit to testifying falsely under oath. But a foretaste of what was to come was right there in the colonel's statement. To quote one observer at the time:

"The Candidate and his candidacy doubtless will get by this week's revelation without being overly inconvenienced, so the campaign can get back to 'real' issues — by which is meant anything other than truth and character and history. After all, what is the word of an old colonel in today's mod America? But who doubts that there will be other revelations? Will they come before or after Mr. Clinton's inauguration as president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces?" — Arkansas
Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 11, 1992.

The colonel had tried to warn us, though he had no desire to become the center of attention. ("I will make no further comments to any of the media regarding this issue.") He was a soldier, not a politician. He sought no special recognition, and it's unlikely there will ever be an exhibit devoted to Colonel Eugene J. Holmes at the new chrome-and-glass presidential library, shrine and fun house in Little Rock. There doesn't need to be. The old man had only done his duty, in war and murky peace, and that was enough. And will always be enough. Men such as Eugene Holmes need no monuments. Like all the truly great, as the poet said, they leave the vivid air signed with their honor.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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