How Choices About Vietnam Shape Political Destinies

Originally posted: February 13, 2004

Ken Bode is Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and former senior political analyst for CNN

Greencastle, Ind. – Since 1988, a candidate’s service record in Vietnam has been considered a vital part of his biography in presidential campaigns.

That year, Dan Quayle was pilloried over the question of whether special influence was used to get him a slot in the Indiana National Guard.

Four years later, frontrunner Bill Clinton’s campaign was almost derailed by a story in The Wall Street Journal bearing the headline “Clinton Received a Vietnam Draft Deferment For an ROTC Program That He Never Joined.” Further digging by the press pretty clearly established that Clinton slickly evaded the draft.

To this day, Vietnam remains a scar on the national conscience, a war that divided generations and called young men to a duty in which many saw neither legitimacy nor purpose.

Albert Gore Jr. was one of those men. Graduating from Harvard in 1970, Gore faced a dilemma. His father, a U.S. senator from Tennessee, was a forceful opponent of the war with a difficult re-election fight on his hands. Young Gore also opposed the war, but anything he did to avoid service, he knew, would be used by the Nixon administration against his father. So, according to his Harvard mentor, Richard Neustadt, Gore opted for the Army, and he went as an enlisted man, “because that’s what ordinary guys in Tennessee did.”

George W. Bush faced a similar problem two years earlier. His father was a prominent congressman and George W. was graduating from Yale with his draft deferment running out. Because his father supported the war, Bush knew he faced some kind of service.

By any measure 1968 was about the worst year to become draft eligible. Anti-war protests at Yale had reached levels unprecedented in the school’s history. President Lyndon Johnson vowed he would not be the first U.S. president to lose a war. The body bags from Vietnam were stacking up and draft calls were increased.

But, as Bill Minataglio recounts in his excellent biography, George W. was indifferent about Vietnam, except to say that he was upset with knee-jerk opposition “for its own sake,” and he was not willing to shoot out his eardrum or go to Canada.

What George W. did, of course, was to secure a rare, open slot in the Texas Air National Guard. He told the commander he wanted to be a fighter pilot because his father was one. Unlike today, the Guard was not a steady source of combat troops for Vietnam. The draft took care of that, though college deferments and loosely acquired medical deferments protected the privileged and influential.

Evidence indicates that Bush did have political help in jumping over a waiting list of about 500 to enter what was called the “champagne unit” of the Texas Guard, joining the sons of Treasury Secretary John Connally and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. One member of the unit recalls, “Most of us were members of the Houston and River Oaks country clubs.”

The record shows that George W. trained and served competently as a pilot of F-102 interceptors, a plane that was considered obsolete for use in Vietnam. While in the Guard, he worked in his father’s campaign. His father arranged a date for him with Tricia Nixon in Washington and a government plane came to pick him up.

George W.’s war was very different from that of John Kerry, his most likely opponent in November. While Bush flew perfectly safe missions over the Gulf of Mexico, Navy Lt j.g. John Kerry commanded the equivalent of a PT-boat in combat on the dangerous rivers in Vietnam, earning three purple hearts and a silver star.

Like Bush, Kerry was also a Yale graduate. Like Gore, he opposed the war before he went to Vietnam, while he was there and when he returned. And like Clinton, Kerry knew he wanted a life of public service and needed to preserve his political viability.

Vietnam was an important test in the lives of Clinton, Gore, Bush and Kerry.

Each man knew he wanted a life in public service. Each understood the need to preserve his political viability, and the choices made then are a legitimate part of each man’s biography.

Pay stubs and tax records may eventually determine whether the young George W. met his National Guard obligations or was, as Democrats charge, a no-show.

But when the president said on ”Meet the Press” that if his unit had been activated he would have gone to Vietnam, he was really misleading the public. The 147th Fighter Group of the Texas Air Guard was never going to see real war. The Champagne Unit was a haven from Vietnam. Everyone, especially Bush, knew it then, and he knows it now.

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