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The Detroit News
Monday, December 15, 1997
 
Team Clinton is skirting Arlington rules
By Tony Snow / The Detroit News
 
WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration has achieved another first - a
politically inspired exhumation. 
 
    The widow of Larry Lawrence, our former ambassador to Switzerland,
summoned backhoes to Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday and, as the
morning fog lifted from the burial grounds, removed her husband's coffin
from an area now occupied exclusively by military heroes.
 
    The humiliating episode was prompted by revelations that Lawrence
lied his way into America's most hallowed military cemetery. He made up
a story about getting a grievous head wound while serving aboard the
Merchant Marine vessel Horace Bushnell during World War II.
 
    As it turned out, he never served. At the time the Bushnell went
down off the coast of Murmansk, he was puttering around a Chicago-area
community college. He transferred the next year to the University of
Arizona, where he played football. He claimed he got his B.A. there, but
in truth, he never graduated.
 
    Now, you would think the administration's investigative hounds would
get wise to at least one of these fabrications in the course of checking
out a future ambassador. But no: State Department sources developed
Curiosity Deficit Disorder in 1993, after failing to confirm his
academic and military records.
 
    Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., who heads a Veterans Affairs
subcommittee looking into the fiasco, wants copies of Lawrence's files -
but, wonder of wonders, the papers have vanished! As of Thursday,
neither Defense Secretary William Cohen nor Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright had been able to procure the missing documents for Everett.
 
    Pentagon sources offer insight about how Lawrence might have slipped
past the authorities: the Clinton Rules.
 
    In previous administrations, they say, the Army followed a simple
process in reviewing waiver requests. Families would petition the
superintendent of the cemetery, asking that their dearly beloved join
America's finest at Arlington.
 
    The superintendent would review the request, make a recommendation
and send it through proper channels. The Army would dispatch
investigators to find out whether the person in question had met
specific criteria: Had he or she served 20 years or more? Had he or she
received a Purple Heart, Medal of Honor or other award of battlefield
valor? Had the person been president? If not, the answer invariably was
no - unless the secretary of the army, after consulting with the general
counsel and assistant secretary, agreed to make an exception.
 
    Staffers applied the standards with considerable rigor. After the
death of MCI founder Bill McGowan, for instance, investigators plowed
through the records for several days before rejecting the plea. An
official involved in such deliberations recalls: "Sometimes the body got
cold as they went to verify records. We wouldn't turn over dirt without
confirmation."
 
    Things changed when Gen. Clinton crossed the Potomac. Although the
procedures remained intact, the administration adopted what one former
Pentagon hand calls "a more generous view of who should get in." Not
everybody knew about the new welcome mat, however. Only those with
political connections got word.
 
    There was a subtle shift at the Army as well. The decision-making
responsibility moved from the assistant secretary for civil works to the
assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs - Sara Lister, who
recently resigned after calling Marine Corps "extremists."
 
    One insider characterizes the switch thus: "They clearly had a
different perspective and put the processing of the paperwork in the
hands of an assistant secretary who better understood what that
perspective was."
 
    The result, according to another Pentagon hand, was a spate of
waiver requests from on high. "With these guys, it was different (than
before). The White House called up and said, 'We want this guy buried in
Arlington.' "
 
    One example: Families of those who died aboard Pan Am 103 petitioned
everybody in the Bush administration, including the president, for a
special memorial at Arlington. They got nowhere because the victims
didn't meet the criteria for inclusion in a military cemetery. It took
less than three months to get a positive response from Team Clinton,
however.
 
    This sort of corner-cutting has become a source of great frustration
for career military officials. The administration seems to adopt a
rather casual view of our fighting forces. Even though the last
available spaces in Arlington will be occupied no later than the year
2020, the president has granted more waivers than any chief executive
before him.
 
    One former Army bigwig says this is indicative of a White House
short on experience in and respect for the armed forces: "They've used
the Pentagon as a giant ATM machine for cutting the budget - until they
have a crisis. Then they use military as a first option to do all manner
of odd jobs because it's easy. As far as using the military for what
it's for - they just don't. They use it as a tool in their political
bag."
 
    Larry Lawrence didn't slip into Arlington because of an innocent
bureaucratic snafu. He got in because the administration got rid of the
old rules - sound familiar? - and let political considerations overwhelm
previously sacred traditions. The remaining question - one Everett hopes
to answer in hearings next month - is how many other people slipped in
without having received proper review?
 
Tony Snow is The News editorial page's Washington columnist. His column
is published on Monday and Thursday. Write The News at Editorial Page,
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax to (313) 222-6417, or
send an e-mail to letters@detnews.com 
 
Copyright 1997, The Detroit News 
 
We welcome your comments. E-mail us at letters@detnews.com