By Bill Hewitt
October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

AS A RHODES SCHOLAR AT OXFORD UNIVERSITY ENGLAND, BILL Clinton was an enthusiastic participant in at least one kind of organized violence—the kind known as rugby. The only trouble was that Clinton had a tendency to knock down players who didn’t have the ball, American football-style. Not the way the game is played, dear boy.

Now that George Bush has succeeded in making a minor issue of what Clinton did or did not do at Oxford in the late 1960s, the President may wish that he had left well enough alone. To those who encountered him back then, Clinton was a highly ambitious but affable young man who seems to have been genuinely well liked by his peers. Robert Reich, who has since become one of Clinton’s top economic advisers, recalls the first time he met the future Democratic presidential candidate. Along with a gaggle of other Rhodes scholars, the two were headed to England on the liner United States. Reich was feeling horribly seasick when a knock came on the door of his cabin. “I opened it and found this tall, gangly Southerner, whom I had met briefly on the pier,” recalls Reich, now a political economist at Harvard. “He was holding chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other. With a syrupy drawl he said, ‘I understand you’re not feeling well. I hope this will help.’ My Jewish grandmother could not have done better.”

The image President Bush has tried to paint is anything but warm and fuzzy, especially when it comes to Clinton’s participation in antiwar protests while at Oxford. “I just think it’s wrong,” the President said last week during the first debate. “It’s a question of character and judgment.” A few days earlier, the President had also dropped some dark hints about a sightseeing trip to Moscow his Democratic opponent had made as a student in 1970, but quickly abandoned that issue for lack of evidence.

Clinton, who was at Oxford from 1968 to 1970, has never made any secret of his opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. In that, he was hardly unique among Rhodes recipients. “There were 30-plus American scholars that year, and I’m sure you couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t opposed to the war,” says John Isaacson, who knew Clinton at Oxford and now heads a Boston executive-search firm. Though Clinton helped organize a teach-in at the University of London, no one seems to remember him as a firebrand in the local antiwar movement. Like his classmates, the future presidential candidate mostly voiced his disaffection during late-night bull sessions. “He was not some extraordinary, rabid organizer,” says former classmate Christopher Key, today a lawyer in Albuquerque, N.Mex. Even if Clinton had been a leader, says Key, President Bush’s criticism would be off-base. “It was not a Jane Fonda-going-to-Hanoi deal,” he says. “No one thought of it as being disloyal to our country.”

Indeed, about the only people who don’t seem to have had much use for Clinton were the hard-core antiwar activists. Dell Martin, now a high school English teacher in Alameda, Calif., was a leading organizer of demonstrations while at Oxford. He recalls that Clinton, like a lot of other students, did little to protest the war actively. “They were conservative, and frankly I had no patience with them,” says Martin. “I felt they were careerists—making a place for themselves in the society [that] had caused this war to happen.” Under the circumstances, that sort of criticism must be music to Clinton’s ears.

BILL HEWITT with bureau reports