- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

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 Col. Eugene J. Holmes, 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.

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 would stay in touch. Then he went off and forgot about taking ROTC. Why, sure. He got what he was after — his 1-D draft deferment at a critical time.

The deed done, young Clinton skipped out to Oxford. But he was so proud of the trick he had played on the old man that he was unable to resist writing that ill-considered letter almost bragging about how he had 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 had 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.

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 3 harrowing years. The colonel mentioned one young man in particular: his brother Bob, killed during World War II 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 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.

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.

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 Col. 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.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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