The War among Democrats

February 14, 1992

Gov. Bill Clinton's response to revelations that he once wrote a letter thanking a ROTC official for "saving me from the draft" was that "this violates the Federal Privacy Act." Perhaps, but in the context of the presidential campaign, that is hardly the issue. There are at least two issues that are much more important. Was he a draft dodger in 1969? Was he lying in 1992 when he denied that he had been?

Many young men sought ways to avoid military service during the Vietnam War era. Given the unpopularity of the war and the unfairness of the draft as it operated for most of the war's duration, a blanket, enduring condemnation of such men would be unfair. But it is fair to take this history into account when weighing the qualifications of one of those young men when he later aspires to become the nation's commander in chief. This is especially pertinent in Mr. Clinton's case. He was 23 when he made the last of his decisions about military service. His letter to the ROTC official stated he had political ambitions. He ran for Congress less than five years later.

Mr. Clinton's letter is a reminder of one of the ugliest periods in American history. Youths with the ability to drag out their college years, to get helpful medical evaluations, to enter "safe" military units or to otherwise get preferential treatment from draft boards managed to shift the burden of fighting the war onto the backs of the less fortunate, less imaginative and the more patriotic. If Mr. Clinton thought this was ancient history, he has not been paying attention. The Dan Quayle story in 1988 and the Roy Dyson story in 1990 showed that many voters still consider what happened in the Vietnam era a matter of concern today.

Paul Tsongas, already a beneficiary of the Clinton campaign's problems, will probably be helped by this development. In recent weeks, he has made his candidacy an attractive landing place for moderates leaving the Clinton camp. In some ways, a Massachusetts moderate is more attractive for Democrats than an Arkansas moderate. Mr. Clinton's moderation is required for nationwide appeal; Mr. Tsongas' seems the product of his own philosophical compass. In politics, honesty pays.

The sputtering campaign of Sen. Bob Kerrey might be helped by the latest development in the Clinton campaign. He is a member of the same generation. He took another path: He went to Vietnam, where he was wounded and won the Medal of Honor. The contrast is so stark that it could well generate for him so-far elusive votes.

A third candidate may be a beneficiary of Mr. Clinton's troubles -- New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. He seems to think so, at any rate. He spoke in Boston this week, attacking President Bush with gusto and providing this sound bite for his supporters in the Draft Cuomo movement in New Hampshire, "I'm going to encourage it."

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