Until the very last politician of the Vietnam generation bows out of public life, America will be watching a rerun of the same military melodrama every four years when candidates answer the inevitable questions: What did you do in Vietnam? Or, what did you do to avoid going?
Those are questions that nearly every American male born in the 1940s or '50s has had to answer at some point, but they retain the greatest moral force for those who seek public office -- particularly for those few who seek to become the nation's commander in chief. Like many of the personal issues that have come to dominate debate in this era of tabloid journalism -- from youthful drug "experimentation" to marital infidelity -- the examination of Vietnam-era draft dodging is all too often an occasion for sanctimony, lying and hypocrisy.
The case of George W. Bush appears to be no exception. According to the exhaustively researched investigation published on July 4 by the Los Angeles Times, young Bush was jumped over a long waiting list of applicants to the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. Bush was about to graduate from Yale and lose his student deferment, and he obviously had no overwhelming urge to fight in the bloody jungle that his father -- then a Republican congressman -- would later blast Bill Clinton for avoiding.
Not only did George W. receive a coveted berth in the Air Guard when others didn't, he also was awarded an officer's commission despite his lack of any visible qualifications or experience. (He even wangled an unusual transfer to Alabama so that he could work in a Republican campaign.)
By all accounts, he performed admirably in the Air Guard, winning his wings as a fighter pilot while displaying courage, leadership and determination. But he was never in any jeopardy of being sent to Indochina, a point made by Sen. John McCain with a cutting quip. As a Vietnam prisoner of war, said McCain, he drew solace from the knowledge that George W. Bush was keeping the shores of Texas safe from enemy invasion.
Bush's campaign spokesman claims, against a compilation of devastating evidence, that the Republican front-runner got no special preference because he happened to be the son of a prominent and wealthy congressman. So does the elderly Air Guard official who approved Bush's induction and commission. Yet it is clear that George W. Bush was treated with far more consideration than thousands of other young men who wanted to join the National Guard in the late '60s.
We have heard all this before, of course. As soon as Dan Quayle was
nominated to become George Bush's running mate in 1988, reporters
excavated the records of Quayle's induction into the Indiana National Guard.
Thanks to the political clout of his father, a powerful Republican publisher
and ardent proponent of the war, Quayle spent the Vietnam years improving
his golf swing, while holding down a safe desk job at Indiana Guard
Few believed Quayle when he denied receiving special treatment due to his
family's influence, and the similar denials now emanating from the Bush
press office sound just as false.
But so far this year, the Texas governor hasn't been subjected to the sort of
flying media interrogation about his service record that was inflicted on
both Quayle in 1988 and on Clinton in 1992. When Clinton claimed he didn't
remember receiving a draft notice before he applied to join the Reserve
Officers Training Corps, another traditional method of avoiding service
overseas, that incredible assertion marked a permanent downward turn in
his relationship with the press.
Journalists of Clinton's generation found it impossible to believe that he
could forget such a memorable letter from the Selective Service. They didn't
know anybody who had forgotten theirs.
That fall, an increasingly desperate President Bush and his surrogates went
after Clinton as a "draft dodger," defining the issue as a test of "character"
that demonstrated the Democratic nominee's unfitness for the presidency. It
was one thing to be a fortunate son like Quayle, to whom an "honorable"
method of evading Vietnam was awarded like a graduation present. It was
apparently quite different, and unacceptable, to be a fatherless young man
from a poor family like Clinton, who didn't want to fight in a war he believed
was terribly wrong.
"I have a different concept of public service and service to the country," the
elder Bush told Rush Limbaugh in September 1992. Limbaugh's own rather
undignified means of avoiding the draft, a medical deferment for a
persistent boil on his backside, went unmentioned during that inspiring
radio chat. So did the fact that none of the then-president's four sons served
Other candidates for the Republican nomination would surely like to use
George W. Bush's military record against him, but only McCain has a
politically palatable answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this
column. From Pat Buchanan to Dan Quayle, too many of them suffer from the
"chicken-hawk" syndrome, which afflicts those who thought the Vietnam war
was a great and worthy national crusade so long as someone else did the
fighting and dying. They are all likely to keep their mouths shut on this
There is, however, another presidential candidate who actually volunteered
for the military during Vietnam and went over there for a while. It is often
said that he did so in an effort to help his father, an antiwar Southern
senator confronting a difficult reelection campaign. Both that senator and
his son were named Albert Gore.