Donald Trump recently made headlines when he spoke at the annual Rolling Thunder biker rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Portrayed as a way to “bolster support among veterans,” Trump rallied the crowd of bikers and their supporters with promises to “rebuild our military” and “take care of our veterans.”
But in the Rolling Thunder rally coverage, there was little press attention paid to the fact that Trump himself actively avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, which seemed relevant considering he was speaking to so many Vietnam vets at an event dedicated to honoring America’s prisoners of war and military members who are missing in action. Typically the campaign press lingers over issues of awkward optics like that. But not for Trump and Rolling Thunder.
While writing “the blunt-spoken Mr. Trump” “likes to stress his desire to strengthen the military and improve how veterans are treated,” The New York Times made no reference to Trump’s Vietnam avoidance.
Reuters included just a passing reference to how Trump “did not serve in the military.” And The Washington Post managed to fit in its dispatch a single sentence noting, “Trump himself avoided the draft through four student deferments and was later medically disqualified from service.”
Trump graduated college in 1968 and managed to not serve in the Vietnam War as the conflict reached its deadly apex. For some reason this campaign season the press doesn’t much care about the topic and has largely walked away from the model of previous cycles when Baby Boomer candidates were repeatedly pressed to explain their ‘60s wartime years.
In general, the larger umbrella topic of Vietnam has come up in Trump coverage in two specific ways. But the questions to date have revolved around a pair of modern-day controversies: When Trump derided Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, for being captured by the enemy, and the controversy that has swirled around Trump’s pledge to raise and donate $6 million to veterans groups. (Trump’s McCain comments were referenced in several of the stories about his Rolling Thunder appearance.)
In fact, much of Trump’s contentious news conference on Tuesday featured him taking questions about the donations. (And then him mocking reporters).
But in terms of Trump having been an able-bodied American, college-aged male at the height of the Vietnam War and what actions he took to avoid serving? Those questions have been of little or no concern to journalists this year, despite the fact that the official campaign story of how Trump avoided the war ought to spark lots of questions from curious journalists.
The Trump tale: A former “star athlete” in high school who friends say could have played baseball professionally, Trump was deemed medically unfit to serve in 1968 because of bone spurs in both his heels. Free of military service, Trump was then able to focus on a lifestyle as the bachelor son of a millionaire real estate developer. ("When I graduated from college, I had a net worth of perhaps $200,000," he wrote in his 1987 autobiography Trump: The Art of the Deal.)
What’s remarkable about the media’s willingness to look away from the issue is that the last three Democratic nominees who were also college-aged men during the Vietnam War era were often hounded by media questions during the campaign season about either their lack of military experience (Bill Clinton), or they were forced to explain and defend their service overseas (Al Gore and John Kerry).
Even though Gore was among just a handful of Harvard graduates from his Class of 1969 to volunteer for the war, Gore’s tour of duty was often belittled by journalists during the 2000 campaign. Writing in February 2000, a former Gore aide marveled at the proliferation of news articles about Gore’s supposed exaggerations, which often centered on claims he “overstated his Army service in Vietnam.”
And of course, Kerry’s medal-winning service in Vietnam became the target of a Republican smear campaign during the 2004 campaign; an ugly smear operation that the press legitimized by not forcefully debunking the obvious lies at its center.
As for Clinton, how many trees did newspaper publishers kill in order to delve into every possible nook and cranny regarding his lack of Vietnam service during the 1992 campaign? How many Clinton draft board members were interviewed, how many old letters were leaked, and how many Yale friends had their memories probed in search of key details from the late `60s? It was all treated as a Supremely Important campaign story by the media.
Trump bypassing Vietnam? Not so much.
To their credit, the Washington Post, New York Daily News and Politico are among those that have published detailed looks at how Trump avoided serving in Vietnam and the candidate’s “shifting accounts.” But those articles all ran nearly a year ago and since then the topic has been of very little interest to those newsrooms and most others. (The Daily Beast recently proved to be an exception.)
Today, the campaign press doesn’t seem to care about Trump’s lack of Vietnam service. But in 1992, the Times editorialized that of course the topic was central to campaigns:
Voters have good reason to examine this issue. Whether or not one accepts the propriety of delving into Governor Clinton's private life, there can be no doubt about the legitimacy of asking how a public official behaved during the Vietnam years; the question provides an illuminating test.
Overall, additional references to Trump’s deferments have been made. But very few have addressed the specifics of his medical story.
What’s amazing in contrasting the lack of coverage this cycle with previous ones is the way Clinton dealt with the Vietnam War and how Trump dealt with it 50 years ago are somewhat similar. So shouldn’t they be equally newsworthy?
Back in the 1960s, both Clinton and Trump, like millions of men at the time, received deferments while they were in college. Both men then faced exposure to the draft after they graduated (Clinton in 1969, Trump in 1968) and became 1-A, or "available for service."
Both men were then able to avoid being drafted. Trump did it by getting a medical deferment for bone spurs, therefore classified 1-Y.
“One big question is whether Trump actively sought the deferment by bringing a letter from his own doctor to the physical citing the bone spur problem,” noted Politico last year. “Young men with access to friendly family physicians had this advantage at the time in dealing with draft physicals.”
Added Trump biographer Wayne Barrett, “There’s no question it fit a pattern of avoidance that was commonplace in his generation.”
That sounds like a news story to me, especially when Trump is already making headlines about U.S. veterans.