The Air Force Friday asked the two-star general who publicly ridiculed President Clinton last month to resign, sending a clear signal through the military that Clinton-bashing will not be tolerated.
In a terse, five-paragraph memorandum, the Air Force said that Maj. Gen. Harold N. Campbell had "violated (military law) by uttering disparaging remarks about the President" and would be severely reprimanded, docked almost $7,000 in pay and forced to retire July 1.
The action marked a clear effort by military commanders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak, to quell anti-Clinton sentiment before it threatens the traditional subservience of the military to civilian authority.
In an unusual move, McPeak called a news conference Friday afternoon to make the point personally that the military would not brook such behavior by its officers. "The chain of command has to be almost pollution-free," he declared.
The outcome was a victory for Clinton, who purposely had kept a low profile in the affair and let the Air Force handle it. Officials said that the White House had pushed privately for a quick disposition and an undramatic punishment to avoid turning Campbell into a martyr.
At the White House, Clinton himself proclaimed his satisfaction with the results, telling reporters that he thought "Gen. McPeak handled it in the appropriate fashion." A week ago, Clinton had expressed chagrin at Campbell's remarks but insisted that he was not offended.
McPeak contended Friday that he was unable to determine precisely what Campbell had said. "The investigating officer got a variety of responses on that," he asserted, "but it seemed to be everyone's conclusion, unmistakably, that the remarks were disrespectful."
Air Force authorities confirmed last week, however, that Campbell was reported to have described Clinton as "draft-dodging," "pot-smoking," "womanizing" and "gay-loving" during a speech on May 24 to about 250 maintenance workers at Soesterberg Air Base in Holland.
Air Force officials said the remarks came to light when some of those in the audience were offended and reported the incident to the Air Force commander in Europe. Eventually, the incident found its way to the press and it became a political hot potato.
A spokesman for the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, to which Campbell had been attached when he delivered the address last month, said that the general was not available for comment.
Campbell, 53, is a veteran of 32 years of service in the Air Force and a highly decorated former fighter pilot who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, flew 1,000 hours in combat and holds dozens of medals, including the distinguished service medal and silver star.
Although McPeak insisted that the punishment given Campbell was "the strongest . . . that can be meted out" under the circumstances, it was handled under a procedure that allowed both sides to avoid a lengthy--and potentially embarrassing--court-martial and stiffer penalties.
Some outsiders had suggested that, had Campbell insisted on a formal court-martial, he might have turned the trial into a review of Clinton's behavior that might have embarrassed the White House. Clinton's record on each of the issues that the general reportedly mentioned has been a subject of controversy.
McPeak said Friday that Campbell, with whom he apparently talked briefly before the decision was made final, "deeply regrets" that the incident occurred. "He agreed he made a mistake, and said he was sorry for it," the chief of staff said.
McPeak also said that he, too, had been "saddened" by the personal tragedy of the way Campbell had ended his career but added that "Gen. Campbell's conduct was wrong" and that it was necessary to respond to it.
Despite some strong anti-Clinton sentiment among military personnel, there was little sympathy for Campbell's outspokenness. Several senior officers interviewed privately said that they thought Campbell should have known better than to express such sentiments in public.
The case recalled a similar incident in the late 1970s in which Army Gen. John Singlaub, was fired after criticizing then-President Jimmy Carter. His case later became a political rallying point for conservatives.