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For President Clinton and the American people, the 50th anniversay of D-Day comes at the right moment. With his ambitious domestic agenda in trouble and his foreign policy in doubt, Clinton clearly needs a change of scene.

The people also need a break - from the cares of the nation's capital, from our nagging worries about the way the country is heading, from bad news.For the next few days, all eyes will be on the liberation of Europe in World War II and not on the turmoil at home. The fall of Rosty, the dubious fate of health care and welfare reform, Whitewater and partisan bickering can be put aside, at least briefly.

Unlike any military venture since, there is no "on the other hand" with D-Day, the largest amphibious assault in modern warfare. D-Day is unambiguous. It's a symbol of the ideals we prize in America and feel are now in short supply - valor, sacrifice, loyalty, duty.

"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade," General Eisenhower wrote the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

"The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you . . . Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. But . . . the free men of the world are marching together to victory!"

That was then. No one is more aware of the cynicism that grips the country today than Clinton. His eight-day trip to Italy, Great Britain and France, which starts today, gives the first president born after World War II the chance to focus on larger themes and perhaps to pull the country together again.

The last thing Clinton needs is to appear to be using the anniversary events to push his domestic agenda.

Press secretary Dee Dee Myers describes the trip as "an opportunity for him both to honor the veterans and those who participated and served in World War II and for him to look ahead at . . . how his generation and coming generations can build on the peace."

His critics pooh-pooh Clinton's role in the anniversary. On call-in programs, veterans bitterly complain that someone who evaded the draft and protested his generation's war isn't fit to shine the boots of World War II veterans.

The naysayers are paying him too much attention. The 50th D-Day anniversary isn't about Clinton any more than the 40th was about Ronald Reagan.

In a briefing for reporters last week, Army historians explained how the military views D-Day.

"The importance of D-Day is not the plan or Operation Overlord," said Capt. Dennis Linton. "More, it's the bravery and dedication of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who understood the importance of that momentous day."

When Clinton previewed his D-Day theme last week in a commencement speech at the Naval Academy, he cited World War II as "an era of sacrifice almost unequaled in our entire history."

He went on to tell the Class of '94, "my parents' generation and your grandparents' generation did not end their work with the liberation of Europe and victory in the Pacific."

How Clinton expands upon his theme in Europe will determine whether he wins his battle of Normandy.