President Bush's attack on Democratic rival Bill Clinton's patriotism sprang from an orchestrated Republican strategy plotted at a Tuesday morning Oval Office session involving Bush, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and four GOP congressmen: Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, Randy (Duke) Cunningham of San Diego, Duncan Hunter of Coronado and Sam Johnson of Texas.
Dornan and Cunningham told Bush he could "kill Clinton, politically" if he would hammer him on the issue of the Arkansas governor's efforts to avoid the draft and his visit to Moscow when he was a 23-year-old Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1969.
Bush, echoing charges made days earlier on the House floor by Dornan and Cunningham, on Wednesday night challenged Clinton's patriotism on Larry King's CNN talk show. The President declared that Clinton should "level with the American people" on the draft and his Moscow visit, and accused the governor of leading demonstrations "against his own country from a foreign soil . . . when your sons and daughters are dying halfway around the world."
Dornan, who along with Cunningham described the session in an interview with The Times, said that in Tuesday's meeting, he urged Bush "to take the gloves off." Cunningham said the President "told us not to worry, that he would use the issue."
Cunningham, a highly decorated Navy combat pilot of the Vietnam War, said he told Bush: "This is an issue that will kill Clinton when people realize what a traitor he is to this country. In some countries, if something like this came out, he would be tried as a traitor. Tokyo Rose had nothing over Clinton."
Baker, Bush's chief political strategist, at that point "just laughed, but didn't say much," Cunningham said. The congressman said that Baker later stressed that the President must "remain aboveboard."
Cunningham quoted Baker as saying: "We cannot pick up the phone and use the power of this office to find the kind of information you're getting. You have to do it for us."
By challenging Clinton's patriotism during his CNN appearance Wednesday night, Bush virtually assured that the issue would be raised in the first presidential debate Sunday. And White House strategists clearly hope it will give new power to their thus-far unsuccessful effort to use the so-called character issue to reduce Clinton's commanding lead in the polls.
"This kinder, gentler presidency has given way in the last days of the campaign to innuendo and smear," Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said in a floor speech. Himself a Rhodes scholar, Bradley said he too had traveled to Moscow while studying in England. "I saw totalitarianism up close and was revolted by it," Bradley said. "What does the President imply--that we were unpatriotic to go? What hogwash!"
Some Republican senators rose to Bush's defense. A red-faced, angry Ted Stevens of Alaska said there was nothing wrong with questioning why Clinton went to Moscow and what he did there. "What I see is a man who wanted to avoid military service and now he wants to be commander in chief," Stevens declared.
Bush was unavailable for comment; Baker and his top aide, Margaret Tutwiler, did not return telephone calls.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, on the campaign trail with the President in New Orleans, denied that the Oval Office meeting with the congressmen had led to the President's attack on Clinton. Fitzwater said Bush had met with them "to hear their views on the issues."
A White House official, who declined to be identified, said Bush's decision to attack Clinton's patriotism "came from the gut."
Dornan and Cunningham said they met with Bush and Baker for 20 minutes to lay out their accusations against Clinton over the Moscow trip and his role in opposing the Vietnam War and to urge the President to use the points in attacking the governor.
Clinton has acknowledged that he engaged in anti-war protests when he was a college student, including when he studied as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, England. On Thursday, Clinton said he helped organize one anti-war protest while at Oxford--a "teach-in" at the University of London.
In the past, Bush had questioned Clinton's accounts of his efforts to avoid the draft, but never before had he directly challenged his patriotism.
In his comments on the King show, Bush said: "I cannot for the life of me understand mobilizing demonstrations against your country, no matter how strongly you feel, in a foreign land."
The President raised that point again Thursday night, saying in Houston that he could not understand "someone mobilizing demonstrations in a foreign country when poor kids drafted out of the ghetto are dying in a faraway land."
Clinton also has readily acknowledged that he spent a week in Moscow in late 1969 during a 40-day tour of Europe while on a break in his second year at Oxford. He said he paid for the trip with his own money and found it interesting.
When Bush on Wednesday night called on Clinton to "level" with the public about his Moscow trip, he conceded he had no facts that there was anything sinister about it.
Bush's Wednesday comments came as state-by-state tracking polls by the Republican National Committee showed the President's reelection effort is in even deeper trouble than indicated by independent polls that have shown Clinton with dougle-digit leads nationally.
RNC sources said the polls found that Bush was trailing by 15 to 20 percentage points in traditionally Republican states, and that his support slipped notably in New Jersey, Florida and North Carolina after he paid visits to shore up his standing.
Some prominent Republicans were clearly dismayed by the tone of the President's remarks on the King show.
Douglas Bailey, a GOP political analyst, said, "It's not good politics, it's desperate politics and a measure of how far he thinks this campaign has slipped away from him." Bailey said other Republicans he talked with believed Bush was "debasing his own greatest strength in the polls--the perception of him as a decent man."
Lyn Nofziger, who served as former President Ronald Reagan's chief political aide, said: "George stoops when he makes that kind of attack. . . . They do need to beat up on Clinton to bring him under 50% in the polls, but Bush ought to leave that kind of attack to the surrogates. Right now, this election has all the makings of a rout unless there is a dramatic development that helps the President."
Some analysts said they think Bush has embarked on a risky strategy that could undermine his own credibility and hurt him politically even in the battleground states of the South, where patriotism is revered and military bases abound.
"Even in the South people don't like someone being called a traitor if they're not," said Emory University analyst Merle Black. "This is very risky because there could be a huge backlash if they can't back it up."
The events leading to Tuesday's Oval Office meeting began last month, when the office of House GOP Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois supplied Dornan with a clipping from an old Little Rock, Ark., newspaper that mentioned Clinton's visit to Moscow.
Michel said that Dornan "drops by my office every once in a while" and that when he came in and asked if anyone was checking on Clinton's trip to Moscow, Bill Gavin, Michel's administrative aide, gave him a June 12, 1989, clipping of a feature article from the Arkansas Gazette.
The article included a single paragraph on Clinton's visit to Moscow, quoting him as saying: "Relations between our two countries were pretty good then. It was a time of detente, and the American moon landing had just been shown on Soviet television all over the country. So it was a very friendly time, a good atmosphere. It was fascinating and I'd like to go back sometime."
Dornan used the article as the basis for a series of speeches on the House floor, beginning two weeks ago. Dornan telephoned the White House on Sunday night to set up the meeting with Bush.
Dornan said that to "fire up" Bush during their 8 a.m. meeting, he quoted from a transcript of a tape-recorded conversation Clinton allegedly had with Gennifer Flowers, the woman who claimed she had an affair with the governor.
Clinton allegedly told Flowers that Bush is "a nice enough guy . . . but basically he doesn't have a clue what's going on, what ordinary people's lives are like."
"I knew that would annoy the hell out of the President when I read it to him," Dornan said. "I told him, 'Mr. President, Clinton holds you in contempt but still thinks he has the moral high ground. But look at his lying over leading anti-war demonstrations. And stonewalling on his trip behind the Iron Curtain. . . . Mr. President, you've got to take the gloves off."
The President, according to Dornan, found the congressmen's material on Clinton "fascinating."
In his speeches on the House floor, broadcast nationwide by the C-SPAN cable channel, Dornan has suggested that Clinton was a dupe of the Soviet KGB. After a Clinton spokesman labeled his charges "a smear campaign, pure and simple," Dornan said his charges were "a legitimate surmise."
Pressed by reporters to produce evidence to back up his claims, Dornan said: "I have a right to speculate until he sets the record straight."
In addition to Bradley, several other Democrats lashed out at Bush for his attack on Clinton. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware challenged Stevens' defense of the President, declaring, "I am dumbfounded. Does the President really believe that . . . Bill Clinton went over to Moscow to confer with the KGB? My God! I am ashamed the Senate is even discussing this . . . malarkey."
Times staff writers Robert W. Stewart, William J. Eaton, Doyle McManus, Douglas Jehl and Robert Shogan contributed to this story.
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