The Man Who Allowed Bill Clinton to Be President

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Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton

I used to go by boat to Ed Howard’s house on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late ’70s and ’80s to hang out in his back yard overlooking the lake, have a few drinks, catch up on events and talk politics.

I was a hardcore Democrat at that time, and our discussions typically would get around to Arkansas politics and our illustrious governor, Bill Clinton. Everybody knew that he would run for President one day. His surrogates and friends made sure everybody knew it and the kingmakers and wealthiest in the state wanted to make it happen. The only problem was Clinton. He didn’t make it easy.

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The Infamous “Letter”
If he ran for President, many of us wondered how Clinton would make it beyond his past and the press. We laughed about him running for President knowing he was such a shameless liar, brazen philanderer and draft dodger. We knew that if he did run, a “letter” would surface, revealing that he wanted to avoid the military and didn’t fulfill his military contract obligations. We thought the American people really cared about those things and that Clinton would return home with his tail between his legs. But our big concern: What would we do if he didn’t get elected President and stayed in the state? The ongoing joke: Bring your daughters inside.

Meeting “Sgt. Eddie”
I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, fresh out of high school in 1969, when I joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and met Ed Howard, more affectionately called “Sgt. Eddie” by those of us he taught in the U of A’s ROTC. He was the consummate non-commissioned officer. Eventually he retired from the military to a small Arkansas town where he and his wife started a real estate business. They worked very hard, were successful and had a beautiful life.

Sgt. Howard’s life, and the clear judgments he made that affected Clinton’s life, and thus all our lives, have been continually on my mind since I attended his funeral a number of months ago.

The Draft
During the mid-20th century, a good portion of our military was conscripted into service through a draft, specifically a 1940 draft that lasted until 1973. This was the first peacetime draft in our nation’s history, passed to maintain a constant flow of “volunteers.” It was surmised that during those 33 years about three or four men were scared into volunteering for every man drafted, as eventually was the case with Clinton.

A historic opposition to the draft existed even before our major involvement in the Vietnam War, due to the belief that the draft caused the early deaths of some of our “best and brightest.” As a result, a slew of military deferments considered “useful to the state” were developed: education, family, marriage, religion, teaching, research and skilled labor were among the most popular. During Vietnam, a steep increase in college student deferments rose as a convenient way to delay being drafted. Abuse of these deferments partially led to the justification for a volunteer military.

The 1940 law was to expire at the end of June 1971, but the Defense Department and Nixon administration decided that some semblance of a draft needed to continue, because we were in a war. So on Dec. 1, 1969, the U.S. Selective Service System conducted a lottery setting the order of call for men to serve who were born between 1944 and 1950. The lottery numbers assigned that day were used during 1970.

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With the exception of military deferments, all other deferments were alleviated during the eventual transition to a volunteer military. Which brings me to the U of A ROTC. Many universities that had ROTC departments at that time required incoming freshmen men to sign up for the basic ROTC classes. Germane to this story: many universities, including the U of A, were dropping the ROTC requirement. I stayed in ROTC, and was really glad I did because it probably kept guys like Clinton and me from going to Vietnam. I hope the irony isn’t lost here.

No one was sure how many people would be selected in 1970, or how high the lottery numbers would go that first year. So some either joined ROTC to receive a deferment, or took their chances, just hoping they wouldn’t be inducted.

U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright
U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas / via

Bill Clinton’s Brush with the Army
The story goes that U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright’s office called Colonel Eugene J. Holmes, who was the commanding officer of the U of A’s ROTC Department, and asked him to enter young Clinton into the ROTC program. He would sign up for some classes at the U of A and join ROTC and thereby receive a military deferment.

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The Colonel complied with the request, clearing Clinton for the Army ROTC Advanced Program. It required a student to sign up for a two-year accelerated curricula and a multiyear commitment in the army reserves or regular army. Clinton signed up for the program and multiyear commitment and got his military deferment.

Where the Story Gets Good
Clinton realized the likelihood of his lottery number, 311, not being called. (Selective Service only made it to 195 in 1970.) He wouldn’t have to worry about being inducted and no longer needed the military deferment or ROTC commitment. So, instead of being appreciative of his deferment, he reneged on his commitment by writing a letter to Col. Holmes.

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Colonel Holmes

According to Sgt. Eddie and others, Col. Holmes was really pissed off. Here was a colonel in the U.S. Army, a World War II Bataan Death March survivor, just trying to help a young man. This lovely man’s purpose in life was that, if any young man was to go to war, he wanted to make sure that young man would be prepared. In return for his help, Col. Holmes got duped by an unappreciative kid. And to boot, he had to use up some of his political clout for a young man who didn’t care about anybody but himself.

As Sgt. Eddie explained to us young guys, all Clinton had to do was go to Col. Holmes and explain the situation, and the difficulty in breaking his contract obligation that he had with the Army. But no: Clinton had to be a self-centered jerk. He had to write a letter instead of discussing his plight face-to-face with Col. Holmes — akin to breaking up with a text message, but worse.

ROTC Files and Campus Dissidents
Clinton’s file, like any other student who signed a contract with the Army, was maintained in the ROTC department. It contained all the normal paperwork as well as the infamous “letter” of dissent. Complicating things around this time, President Nixon directed the military to maintain files on dissidents (i.e., those opposing the Vietnam War) on college campuses by ROTC departments, which all compliant ROTC Departments did.

Sometime after Nixon left office, ROTC departments were directed to destroy all dissident files that had been compiled and maintained. There was a lingering question for the U of A’s ROTC department about Clinton’s file: keeping in mind that it had the infamous “letter” in it, was his file an Army file or dissident file? The story was told to me that, to be safe, the Clinton “dissident file” was “destroyed” as directed only after copies were made, in case it was actually considered “official” Army business. Only a few people knew where those files were located.

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Clinton Runs for President
Right before Clinton announced his run for President, an article came out in an Arkansas business publication about the ROTC fiasco and the infamous “letter.” The column barely saw the light of day, yet I believe it was eventually picked up by the Wall Street Journal. Clinton threw his hat in the ring, and after he won the Democratic nomination the press started to get really interested in his past. Most of the press was in the tank for him, as they are for Hillary Clinton today. But at the 11th hour Sgt. Eddie said that one of the big media groups got very interested in the ROTC story. They actually had copies of the Army commitment papers Clinton had signed as well as the infamous “letter.”

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Sgt. Edward Howard

My Admiration for Ed Howard
A week or so before the 1992 general election, the media group contacted Sgt. Eddie and faxed to him a copy of the contract that Clinton had signed, obligating him to military service. Sgt. Eddie was asked if the signature was Clinton’s. If so, they were going to break the whole messy ROTC story, potentially derailing his chances of becoming president.

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Sgt. Eddie’s response was: “I don’t know if it is his signature or not.” He told me later that it might have been Clinton’s signature, but he couldn’t say for certain that what was faxed was authentic.

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Sgt. Eddie told me that he had fought for the rights of all of us. He had fought so we could make collective and democratic decisions of our choosing, good or bad. He went on to say that he was not going to go against his principles, making a judgment that could have possibly taken from the people and put into his hands the future of our country. His military career and core values compelled him to fight for the right for “we the people” to make decisions, not a media conglomerate or a handful of people intent on the ascendency of a certain individual within a closed political circle. He truly held out hope for the fundamental beliefs on which our democracy was based, hope not constructed in words but deeds.

To the day he died, this man of great principle fought for our right to lead a self-determined life. His clear judgments and acute awareness of our democratic principles affected Clinton’s future as well as each of ours. I hope that when we exercise our individual right to vote in this great democratic experiment in human governance, we keep Ed Howard in our hearts and minds. And by being informed voters we pay homage to this great man.