London Sunday Times
May 29, 1994, Sunday
BYLINE: James Adams
It was the moment President Bill Clinton wanted to restore his tattered reputation with the military before his departure for the D-Day celebrations in Europe this week, James Adams reports.
He had just presented posthumous Congressional Medals of Honour, America's highest military decoration, to the widows of two soldiers for valour in Somalia. After inviting the families for a moment of quiet reflection in the Oval Office, the president approached Herbert Shughart, the father of one of the two soldiers, and offered his hand.
To his astonishment the handshake was declined. "You are not fit to be president of the United States," said Shughart Senior. "The blame for my son's death rests with the White House and with you. You are not fit to command."
The president reeled and the unprecedented onslaught continued for some minutes. According to witnesses it was a "highly charged emotional moment" which resulted in Clinton trying to explain to Shughart,Sr. why the events of that day last October were not his fault.
Shughart and his colleague, both sergeants, were killed trying to rescue fellow rangers from a vicious fire-fight in which 18 died and 75 were wounded. A later Pentagon investigation revealed that the troops had been refused the right equipment and there was no political or military plan to justify the Americ an presence in Somalia. Although the president has tried to escape the blame, he is largely credited with the failure of the whole American effort to bring peace to Somalia. According to witnesses to the Oval Office scene, the Shughart family remained unconvinced by the president's arguments.
"The medal doesn't help anything, other than that we are grateful that Randy will be remembered in such an honourable way," said Lois Shughart, the soldier's mother.
Since the row, the White House has been desperate to contain the damage in advance of the D-Day celebrations. "Everyone wants to make sure that the president arrives in Europe as the commander in chief and not as a man seen as unfit to lead," said one White House source. Weeks of feverish preparation have gone into the European trip to commemorate the Normandy landings and it has been designed to attract reflected glory for the president, who avoided the draft during the Vietnam war. Yesterday in his Memorial Day address, the day when America honours its war dead, Clinton said there were limits to committing US troops abroad in the new post-Cold War era. The greatest challenge, he said, came from the "the smouldering embers of ethnic and religious hatreds" in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. "We cannot dispatch our troops to solve every problem where our values are offended by human misery, and we should not," Clinton said. "We are prepared to defend ourselves and our fundamental interests when they are threatened."