ABOARD USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARCH 12 -- Ambivalence is no frame of mind for a warship. But there seemed to be no better word for the mood that filled the hangar deck here today.
The president of the United States had arrived, and the presence of the commander in chief of the armed forces has visceral meaning aboard an aircraft carrier bound for uncertain waters off the Balkans. Yet an undercurrent of mockery also pervaded the ship, the kind a visitor never heard under President Bush.
In the military world, perhaps even more than in the civilian one, a president is the most distinguished of all possible Distinguished Visitors, and the 6,000 sailors and Marines were never less than polite. Many said they were glad to see President Clinton aboard.
But there were Hillary jokes and Chelsea jokes. There was the one about the protester who threw a beer at the president. (Not to worry: It was a draft beer. Clinton dodged it.)
While preparing a weapons display for Clinton's visit, one Marine sniper donned a shredded burlap wig and began mincing around the deck. Another sniper wrapped him in an embrace. What with Clinton's visit, they said mockingly, they were thinking of declaring their love.
It has been a long time since a president had so rocky a start with his armed services. The troops hated Jimmy Carter's amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders, but not the way they hate Clinton's intention to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. Carter at least had served in uniform.
"Maybe we can call this his military service," said Cmdr. Bill Gortney, executive officer of one of the Roosevelt's strike fighter squadrons, alluding icily to Clinton's brief visit here. "Three hours is more than he had before."
Lt. Cmdr. Jim Papageorge, another F/A-18 pilot, remembered when a president's visit felt otherwise. When Ronald Reagan boarded the USS Coral Sea on its return from a bombing raid against Libya in 1986, Papageorge and his fellow aviators had nothing but pride.
"We felt we had gone out there and kicked some ass and he came and thanked us," Papageorge recalled. This time, he added, "everybody's got a big question mark."
Some of the questions have little to do with Clinton. Defense spending reached its modern peak the same year Reagan visited the Coral Sea, and it has been falling each year since. Those reductions, which would have continued had Bush been reelected, have begun under Clinton to have real impact on careers and working conditions.
Even so, said Navy Lt. Eric Disher, "there are a lot of people who don't approve of the president personally, and you can't hide that."
All of which helped account for the skipper's tone when he addressed his crew early this morning, a few hours before the president arrived.
"I think that all of you would agree," said Capt. Stanley W. Bryant, the slightest note of entreaty in his voice, "that regardless of the president's politics, we need to show support for the president of the United States and the commander in chief of the armed forces. Whether you voted for him or not, I think we all want the president and the administration to succeed."
Many had a stake in making Clinton's visit a success. For the Navy, which feels beleaguered in Washington, it was an opportunity to make an important friend. For Adm. Paul David Miller, chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command and host of the presidential visit, it was an occasion to make a first impression in his bid to succeed Gen. Colin L. Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And for Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who accompanied Clinton and had sent his top aide ahead to grease the path, it was a chance to show the White House that he can do the president some political good.
The ship's company extended every effort, with Marines literally scrubbing on their knees with toothbrushes and sailors repainting bulkheads pastel blue. Capt. Thomas G. Otterbein, the Roosevelt's executive officer, said the navigator even pointed the ship so the president's path on the deck "is bathed in sunlight." At 11:59 a.m., as Marine One landed, eight bells rang on the ship and the intercom barked the Navy's traditional announcement of the commander in chief: "United States, arriving!"
Clinton extended himself as well, asking questions of the crew and adopting fragments of their lingo. At one point, for example, he thanked "the grapes on the roof" for all their hard work, which is not exactly Oxford or Arkansas. "Grape" is shipboard slang for the purple-shirted crewman who fuels the planes, an entry level and fairly low-status job. The "roof" is another term for the carrier's flight deck.
Lance Cpl. Derek Morgan caught Clinton's eye with a SMAW -- a shoulder-fired rocket launcher that could star in a "Terminator" movie. Morgan told him it could punch through an inch of homogenous steel. Clinton said, "Really?" and then, "What distance?"
Then the president shouldered the weapon and sighted it down the hangar deck toward an A-6 attack jet. Abruptly he put the weapon down, apparently imagining a headline. " 'Clinton Destroys Airplane,' " he said.
The subject most on the minds of crew members went unspoken. Clinton praised the military's history of "integration and equal opportunity," but did not mention homosexuals. The sailors and Marines took his cue.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Paul Cooper, grinning a should-I-really-say-this grin, said: "All of us have our own opinions and it just happens that most of us differ from the president. We've been told to be very careful what we say."
The instructions, in fact, were not to bring up the subject but to speak freely about it if asked.
Marine Maj. Ray Young, executive officer of the Marine force aboard, said he had discussed the matter in advance with a Clinton military aide who was his classmate from Command and General Staff College.
"I told him, 'If the president doesn't want to hear the answer, he shouldn't ask the question,' " Young said.