Male cheerleaders and chicken hawks

While Republicans smear Democrats as unpatriotic, a look at the war record of many GOP leaders -- including President Bush -- shows a remarkable aversion to the front lines. Part 3 of "Big Lies."

By Joe Conason

Published August 21, 2003 12:17AM (EDT)

"Conservatives truly love America and support the armed forces, while liberals are unpatriotic draft dodgers." Of all the pernicious claptrap emitted by right-wing propagandists, none is more offensive than smearing liberals and Democrats as unpatriotic. The portrayal of a liberal elite that despises its own country has allowed conservatives to appropriate the flag, the national anthem, and other national symbols -- the heritage of every American -- as their movement's private property, and to misuse those symbols for narrow partisan purposes. To the extremists, anyone who doesn't pledge allegiance to the Republican platform is a "traitor."

Rank-and-file reactionaries out in the red-state hinterland may believe this tripe, but the Republican insiders know better. Living in major cities like New York and Washington, they can't avoid knowing liberals who have proudly served in the military, revere the Constitution and the flag, and share the values of liberty and democracy -- who are, indeed, just as patriotic as any conservative. That knowledge only makes their promotion of this slanderous myth more shameful.

Like so much other rightist cant, "liberals hate America" is a slogan designed to confuse and inflame the ignorant. And like many another successful frame-up, this one grossly exaggerates a small fact. On the far left there does exist a handful of annoying academics and activists -- typified by Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark -- whose ideas about America and the world haven't changed much since the '70s. Their politics hark back to a period when the criminal excesses of the Cold War in Indochina, Latin America and southern Africa had alienated many young Americans from our country. The overwhelming majority of those young people never contemplated any kind of unpatriotic act, and those who remained active in politics took up the challenge of democratic reform.

As for the remnant of ultra-leftists, whether they love America or not is for them to say. What they surely detest -- as they would be the first to affirm -- is American liberalism. That's what conservatives always forget (or pretend to forget) when quoting left-wing literature to prove that liberals hate and blame America.

Distinguishing fringe factions from the progressive majority is essential to wiping away the "anti-American" smear against liberals. It is a task complicated by the fact that, as a matter of constitutional principle, liberals consistently uphold the civil liberties of radicals at both ends of the spectrum. It's simple for conservatives to look patriotic by threatening dissenters or amending the Constitution to ban obnoxious behavior like flag-burning. But what could be more fundamentally American and patriotic than the liberal commitment to defend all of the freedoms symbolized by the Stars and Stripes?

The relentless disparagement of liberal patriotism by right-wing ideologues is an attempt to punish that commitment to free speech, and an abandonment of traditional American values of fair play and civic decency. There is nothing truly conservative about the conservatives' compulsion to divide the nation for their own political gain. There is nothing patriotic about perverting the natural love of country into suspicion, bitterness and hostility. (Strangely, many of the conservatives who seek to inflame hatred against their liberal neighbors would describe themselves as devout Christians -- but then some of our most jingoistic warmongers also claim to be true disciples of the Prince of Peace.)

In an earlier era there were Republican statesmen, such as the senators who initiated the censure of Joseph McCarthy, who considered such smear tactics contemptible. To those outraged colleagues, McCarthy's strategy betrayed real patriotism by falsely impugning the loyalty of innocent Americans for momentary personal advantage. The senators who finally stood up against their fellow Republican did so because they realized that his unfounded accusations of disloyalty were eroding national unity, constitutional authority, and intellectual freedom -- and assisting America's real enemies.

During the months preceding the war in Iraq, conservatives used the same sleazy tactics to disparage liberals, progressives and Democrats. Liberals who preferred inspections to invasion were denounced as unpatriotic. Democrats (and Republicans) who saw through the administration's disinformation and fumbling diplomacy were called appeasers. And the usual Republican suspects sought to paint all critics with the same smear brush, as if patriotism demanded mindless obedience to whatever spin might emanate from the Pentagon.

In their zeal to take partisan advantage of the war, Republican propagandists ignored the real complexities of the national debate over Iraq. The argument ranged across a spectrum that included left-leaning "hawks" such as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Paul Berman, author of "Terror and Liberalism"; and such prominent right-wing "doves" as Patrick Buchanan, Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, and Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute. Not everyone who questioned the war shared Chomsky's hostility to American power, and not everyone who supported the war agreed with Bush's unilateralism. The truth about Iraq was complicated. So was the political lineup on either side of the war debate. But for the purpose of defaming Democrats and liberals, the right-wing bullies must keep their ideological categories simple.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, rhetorical bullying by the self-appointed sentinels has become shrill and continuous: Ann Coulter snarls that liberals must be threatened with execution to deter them from becoming "outright traitors." Andrew Sullivan warns against the "decadent enclaves" of East and West Coast liberals "mounting a fifth column" -- a term that means a group of secret sympathizers with the enemy -- in the war on terrorism. (He later blames "liberal culture" for the disloyalty of the young Californian who joined the Taliban.) The New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy denounces "liberals, whom I regard as traitors," for daring to quote the Constitution in defense of civil liberties.

The modern mini-McCarthys are always eager to form a mob, to trample anyone who resists their immediate partisan objectives. When Vermont's Jim Jeffords went independent and Democrats regained control of the Senate in early 2001, the right found a new target to replace Bill Clinton, their perennial favorite. The conservative hit squad went after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

At first they denounced the soft-spoken South Dakotan as an "obstructionist" with no agenda except to thwart President Bush. This was a ridiculous overstatement, but not a slur. By the end of the year, however, the campaign against Daschle turned hard and dirty. Newspapers all over his home state suddenly published full-page advertisements with photos of Daschle and Saddam Hussein and a headline shrieking "What do these two men have in common?" The ads were sponsored by American Renewal, a group affiliated with religious right broadcaster James Dobson that works closely with White House political director Karl Rove. Their ostensible reason for aligning Daschle with Saddam was the Democrat's opposition to oil-drilling in the Alaska wildlife reserve (an opinion long shared by most Americans).

What disturbed many observers was that those Daschle-bashing ads appeared at a time when nearly every Democratic elected official in the country had affirmatively answered the president's call for bipartisan unity against terrorism. But the blitz mounted by the Dobson outfit in South Dakota was actually part of a carefully coordinated partisan scheme to make Tom Daschle into a negative symbol. "It's time for Congressional Republicans to personalize the individual that is standing directly in the way of economic security, and even national security," advised a "talking points" memorandum issued to Senate Republicans by political consultant Frank Luntz. "Remember what the Democrats did to Gingrich? We need to do exactly the same thing to Daschle."

Within weeks after Congress returned from the holiday recess, Republican leaders resumed their mugging of Daschle, feigning terrible offense at mild remarks he had made about the progress of the war against al-Qaida and the imperative of capturing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban mullahs. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, chairman of the GOP's congressional campaign committee, ranted that Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country." House Majority Whip Tom DeLay called Daschle's comments "disgusting."

The Democratic leader shrugged off DeLay and Davis with a thin smile. He wouldn't be provoked, even when Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott refused to repudiate the insinuation of treason against him on national television and instead seemed to endorse it. "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism?" cried Lott.

Daschle should have pounced on that invitation to compare their respective patriotic credentials, which would hardly have been flattering to Lott -- and would have exploded a widespread delusion about liberals and conservatives. The flag-flapping, ultranationalist Republican had not only avoided the draft with student deferments, but had also had spent the early years of the Vietnam conflict waving pom-poms as a cheerleader at Ole Miss. The thoughtful but determined Daschle, who rarely spoke about his own military service, had served three years in the Air Force after college as an intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command.

It was Sen. John Kerry, not Daschle, who addressed the Republican leaders in the manner they deserved. At a Democratic dinner in New Hampshire, the senator from Massachusetts stood up and said, "Let me be clear tonight to Senator Lott and to Tom DeLay. One of the lessons that I learned in Vietnam -- a war they did not have to endure -- and one of the basic vows of commitment that I made to myself, was that if I ever reached a position of responsibility, I would never stop asking questions that make a democracy strong ... Those who try to stifle the vibrancy of our democracy and shield policies from scrutiny behind a false cloak of patriotism miss the real value of what our troops defend and how we best defend our troops."

Kerry received a standing ovation from the New Hampshire Democrats. Thus encouraged, he repeated his roasting of the Republican leaders at a press conference the following day. As a Vietnam combat veteran who earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star in two Navy tours -- and who later founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- Kerry had ample stature to challenge the character assassins.

What the Daschle episode revealed was how routinely Republicans and conservatives resort to the kind of hyperbole that was once heard only from extremists and bigots. The Kerry speech electrified his audience because, like so many other liberals, they were tired of listening to conservatives blast away at their patriotism unanswered. At long last, someone had fired back.

The image of disloyal liberals harks back to the national trauma of Vietnam, when a fragment of the broad antiwar movement drew media attention by burning the American flag, carrying the banner of the National Liberation Front, and indulging in random violence. Profoundly infuriating to most Americans, the revolting conduct of a few privileged students was seized upon by the Nixon administration to discredit the completely loyal dissent of mainstream Democrats, Republicans and independents from places like South Dakota, Oregon, Idaho, Texas and New Jersey as well as liberal New York, Massachusetts and California.

In the Nixon White House, a young conservative named Patrick Buchanan penned many of the harshest attacks on the antiwar liberals. Buchanan's aggressive patriotism didn't extend to wearing his country's uniform, however. He had slipped past the District of Columbia draft board with a "bad knee." But he didn't hesitate to question the loyalty of prominent liberals who had worn that uniform with valor -- including heroic veterans and leaders of the liberal opposition to the war such as George McGovern, a bomber pilot who won the Distinguished Service Cross for flying many dangerous missions over Germany, and John Kerry, a decorated Navy captain wounded in Vietnam.

Among prominent conservatives of the Vietnam generation, the kind of hypocritical posturing symbolized by Buchanan and Limbaugh is so widespread that they have acquired a derogatory nickname: "chicken hawks." Right-wing draft evasion first emerged as an embarrassing issue in 1988, when reporters delved into the personal history of the handsome young senator nominated for vice president at the GOP convention. Thanks to the influence of his father, Indiana's most powerful newspaper publisher and an ardent editorial proponent of the war, Dan Quayle had spent the Vietnam years improving his excellent golf swing, while holding down a desk job at Indiana National Guard headquarters. (Among Quayle's contemporaries in the Senate, incidentally, those who had served in active duty during the Vietnam War included two Republicans -- and five Democrats.) The story of Quayle's privileged berth in the National Guard dominated news coverage of his nomination at the New Orleans convention and provoked much commentary in the weeks that followed.

Twelve years later, little attention was paid to the strikingly similar story of George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, a sojourn that had likewise protected him from the Vietnam draft. About to graduate from Yale and lose his student deferment in 1968, he obviously felt no overwhelming urge to fight in the bloody jungle conflict that his father -- then a Republican congressman -- would someday blast Bill Clinton for avoiding.

Ushered into the Texas Air National Guard ahead of hundreds of other young men on the waiting list for a few coveted places, George W. Bush later insisted that he had never received any "special favoritism." Perhaps he only benefited from the ordinary favoritism that the Texas elite enjoyed during the Vietnam War, when the Air National Guard became one of the primary means of escaping the draft. His father was a mere congressman at the time, but that was good enough to get Dubya in despite his low score on the pilot aptitude test. Pushed to the top of the waiting list, he was also awarded a highly unusual promotion to second lieutenant on completing his basic training, despite his lack of qualifications.

Exactly how all this happened remains a matter of dispute. In a civil lawsuit, former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes testified that he received a call from Sid Adger, a socially prominent Houston oilman and friend of the elder Bush. According to Barnes, Adger wanted to ensure that the unit at Ellington Air Force Base would take care of young Bush. (Adger had already obtained Guard slots for two of his own sons.) Barnes also testified that one of his aides forwarded the request to a Guard general. During the 2000 campaign, both Bush and his father denied using any such influence on his behalf. Pleading a bad memory, the elder Bush told reporters that he was "almost positive" he had never spoken with Adger, who died in 1996, about the Guard matter.

Having made a six-year commitment to the Guard, Bush successfully completed the challenging course of training in the F-102 fighter. In his 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," he offered lyrical memories of his Guard stint. "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years," he wrote. But that simply wasn't true: Lt. Bush never flew another jet after being suspended from flight duty in August 1972 for failing to take a mandated annual physical. That was a fact he simply couldn't remember when asked to account for the discrepancy in 2000. ("A Charge to Keep" also omits his stint as head cheerleader at Phillips Andover, his old prep school.)

Among the most questionable assertions in his book is that he sought to volunteer for service in Vietnam "to relieve active-duty pilots." In a more candid mood in 1998, Bush had told a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "I don't want to play like I was somebody out there marching to war when I wasn't. It was either Canada or the service and I was headed into the service."

Bush also wrote that his military service "gave me respect for the chain of command." Not enough respect, apparently, to report for duty as ordered, since his records show that he ignored two direct orders to do so -- and in fact was absent from duty for a year between May 1972 and May 1973.

By the time he applied to Harvard Business School in 1972, Bush claimed, "I was almost finished with my commitment in the Air National Guard, and was no longer flying because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter." That too was false. According to an interview with his commanding officer that appeared in the Boston Globe, Bush's Guard unit continued to fly the F-102 until 1974, an assertion confirmed by Air Force records. "If he had come back to Houston, I would have kept him flying the 102 until he got out," said retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges.

In 2000 a few journalists asked the Bush campaign to account for his near-total absence from duty during the final two years of the six-year stint he agreed to serve. The Republican candidate and his spokespersons replied that he made up his missed days in an Alabama National Guard unit, but there is scant evidence to confirm that claim. Bush sought a permanent transfer to a "postal unit" in Alabama that didn't require weekend drills or active duty, which was approved by his Texas superiors. In May 1972, National Guard headquarters denied his request -- which would have amounted to a permanent vacation from duty. The following autumn, he was assigned instead to temporary "alternative" training at the 187th Squadron in Montgomery, Ala.

According to two former officers in that Alabama Guard unit, however, Bush never showed up. Retired Gen. William Turnipseed, the unit's former commander, said he was certain that Bush did not report to him, although the young reserve airman was specifically required to do so. The orders dated Sept. 15, 1972, were clear. "Lieutenant Bush should report to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, DCO, to perform equivalent training."

Bush has insisted, usually through a spokesman, that he did report for duty in Alabama, although his campaign could offer no proof. In late 2000 a group of Alabama Vietnam veterans offered $3,500 to anyone who could verify Bush's claim that he performed service at a Montgomery, Ala., National Guard unit in 1972. No one ever claimed that reward. Nor could his campaign produce a single witness who confirmed that Bush had attended any Guard drills in Houston after he returned from Alabama in late 1972.

According to the Boston Globe, Bush's discharge papers list his service and duty station for each of his first four years in the Air National Guard. After May 1972, there was no record of training on those forms and "no mention of any service in Alabama." The supervising pilots at Ellington Air Force Base wrongly believed that Bush was serving in Alabama. In a report dated May 2, 1973, they explained that they were unable to rate his efficiency because "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of report. A civilian occupation made it necessary for him to move to Montgomery, Alabama. He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing equivalent training in a non-flying status with the 187 Tac Recon Gp, Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama."

As for Bush's curious failure to take his Air Force physical in July 1972, his only excuse is that because he was then in Alabama working on a Republican Senate campaign, he was unable to return to Houston for a checkup by his personal physician. That too was untrue. A pilot's physical, required to continue flying, can only be performed by a certified Air Force flight surgeon (as Bush must have known, since he had undergone at least three such exams). An investigation of Bush's military career published in June 2000 by the Times of London noted that the Air Force had instituted rigorous drug testing a few months before he failed to show up for the medical exam.

The commander in chief's official National Guard record shows no evidence of service between May 1972 and May 1973. Although he was certainly in Houston during most of that period, he didn't return to duty at Ellington until the spring of 1973. The records show that he spent 36 days in drills (though not flying) from May through June 1973, apparently to compensate for all the months he had been absent. By then he was preparing to attend Harvard Business School. His final day in uniform was July 30, 1973, and he was officially released from active duty the following October -- eight months before he would have finished his original six-year commitment to the Guard.

The next time Bush strapped himself into a fighter cockpit would be 30 years later, when he was flown to the deck of the USS Lincoln for a triumphal speech marking the American victory over Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Privately, Republican media advisers admitted that they were likely to use the "Top Gun" videotape of the president strutting across the carrier deck in his flight suit for campaign commercials in 2004.

Despite all the remarkable contradictions between his military record and his self-serving stories, and despite the plentiful evidence that he had shirked a year of his service and then lied about it, the "liberal media" never subjected Bush to the searing interrogations inflicted on Quayle in 1988 and Clinton in 1992. Only the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, and a Democratic Web site bothered to explore the curious absences and lapses of duty that resulted in Bush's grounding after two years of fighter training. Nobody insisted that he hold press conferences to explain himself. Pundits dismissed the issue when they mentioned it at all. The cultural assumption that Republicans are paragons of flag-saluting martial virtue is rarely challenged, regardless of reality.

Yet the startling fact is that liberal Democratic politicians are at least as likely to have done military service as their Republican opponents and critics. Among the U.S. senators in the 107th Congress, the percentage of veterans was slightly higher among Democrats than among Republicans (if service in the Vietnam-era National Guard is excluded). That sort of statistic wouldn't matter so much if not for the right's continuing indulgence in venomous attacks on the patriotism of liberals and Democrats. Lining up the conservative civilians alongside the liberal veterans is an unpleasant but necessary exercise in an era when right-wingers and Republicans are inclined to exploit patriotism for partisan advantage.

The long, distinguished list of Republican tough guys who never served descends from Vice President Dick Cheney, who has explained that he had "other priorities" during Vietnam, all the way down to Rush Limbaugh, who frequently impugns the patriotism of liberal veterans like Tom Daschle. It includes former Majority Leader Lott; former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his successor, Denny Hastert; the two Texans who actually ran the House after Gingrich's departure, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey; White House political advisor Karl Rove; and Phil Gramm, the senior senator from Texas who retired in 2002.

John Ashcroft would have been subject to the Vietnam draft when he graduated from law school in 1967, but a family friend swiftly set him up in a job teaching business law to undergraduates at a Springfield, Mo., college. The local draft board deemed this job "essential" and awarded him an occupational deferment, one of eight deferments he received between 1963 and 1969. As attorney general, Ashcroft has been quick to question the patriotism of anyone who protests his evisceration of basic liberties.

Not everyone excused from service was a chicken hawk, but every chicken hawk has an excuse. Few were ever as creatively comical as Tom DeLay, a belligerent politician who loudly maligns the patriotism of his betters. At the Republican Convention in 1988, he explained to reporters that there had been no space in the Army for "patriotic folks" like himself and Dan Quayle during the Vietnam War -- because too many minority youths had joined the service to earn money and escape the ghetto.

His own failure to serve only seems to have made the former exterminator more vociferously obnoxious to those who did. When retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft cautioned against a precipitous invasion of Iraq during the summer of 2002, DeLay denounced such warnings as "a campaign driven by a congenital mistrust of American principles and consistent hostility to American action." Later that year, during an especially shrill appearance on CNN, he insisted that congressional Democrats who dared to raise questions about national security "don't want to protect the American people ... They will do anything, spend all the time and resources they can, to avoid confronting evil." DeLay is simply a cowardly thug in a business suit who abuses patriotic rhetoric to stifle debate.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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