Today let me tell you what Bill Clinton and I did during the war in Vietnam: We avoided the war in Vietnam.
Millions of young American men attempted to avoid Vietnam back then, whether they choose to remember it that way or not so many years later, but Bill Clinton and I actually did it. Back then, Bill avoided the draft with a friendly Arkansas ROTC officer's help, and I managed to avoid the unfriendly officer with the voice like scouring pads at Fort Holabird.
The officer with the voice like scouring pads wanted to send me to Vietnam for talking. Not just me, but maybe 200 of us, draftees all, who sat in this big room at Fort Holabird 24 years ago this month and kept talking in spite of direct orders to shut up.
Mostly, we were talking about the war. Nobody in the room seemed to want to go. The newspapers were filled with stories about the Tet offensive, and our heads were filled with a simple question which nobody in Washington was answering for us, or for Bill Clinton down in Arkansas, either: What was America doing in the middle of somebody else's civil war?
"All right, everybody quiet down."
I can still hear the officer's words a quarter-century later. I can still hear the sound of scouring pads in his voice, still see him standing there in his U.S. Army dress uniform, and I can still hear some people in the room inexplicably talking in spite of his order.
"I said quiet down," the officer says again.
Still, there is talking. Voices here, a couple more over there, a few over in the corner, some laughter coming from the back. Then, this:
"If I hear one more sound," the officer with the scouring pad voice is bellowing, "you're all shipping out for Vietnam today."
The silence in the room is like the inside of a coffin. Can he do this? Can he send us to Vietnam for talking?
It's a variation on an old theme, an echo of air raid drills in elementary school a decade earlier, where your teacher would say, "No talking. In the event of a real nuclear war, anyone caught talking will have to stay after school."
In this big room at Fort Holabird, nobody entirely believes the officer, but nobody wants to test him, either.
And nobody, not one guy out of the 200 or so, rises to his feet and says: "Excellent, sir. I want to go to Vietnam today. I want to get into the war."
Can we stop with the sanctimony already? Vietnam was the war that broke America into pieces, that divided us into those who burned the flag and those who draped it over the coffins of their sons, that sent millions caught in the middle wondering: Why is it wrong to oppose a war that's so wrong?
And, two decades later, it's a war that can't let go of Bill Clinton, or of America, either. Instead of telling us what he'd do in the White House in 1993, Clinton's reduced to telling us about Vietnam in 1969.
"Fair is fair," the White House says, remembering the last presidential campaign. "Everybody blasted Dan Quayle for joining the National Guard. Why not blast Clinton for ducking out?"
They willfully miss the point. It's not that Quayle avoided Vietnam. It's that, having done so, he hawked his whole public life for other young men to fight. He thinks war is a fine place for young men whose names don't happen to be Dan Quayle.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was writing this to Col. Eugene Holmes, head of Army ROTC at the University of Arkansas, in 1969:
"I have written and spoken and marched against the war. . . . The draft system itself is illegitimate. No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose.
"The draft was justified in World War II because the life of the people collectively was at stake. Individuals had to fight, if the nation was to survive, for the lives of their countrymen and their way of life. Vietnam is no such case. . . ."
As a nation, have we not yet learned that lesson? At Fort Holabird, nobody stood up to the officer with the scouring pad voice because nobody wanted to go to Vietnam. The country did not seem at risk from this tiny nation in Southeast Asia; only our bodies did.
Bill Clinton had his letter, and so did millions of other kids. At Fort Holabird, in the moments before the officer issued his threat, dozens of guys took out letters and waved them happily in the air. They were letters from doctors, claiming various infirmities, real and imagined, for kids desperate not to go into the service.
"My doctor," cried one kid who seemed perfectly healthy, "says I've only got one arm." Everybody laughed. Nobody accused him of lack of patriotism. One kid stepped on a scale and the army pronounced him just a few pounds too light to fight.
"Why don't you get yourself a nice big lunch?" an Army doctor asked.
"I'm not hungry," the kid explained.
Today, I'm hungry. I'm hungry for a little honest debate about what the various presidential contenders might do for America in the 1990s, not what Bill Clinton did not do in Vietnam in the 1960s.
I don't know very much about Clinton, except this: Millions like him found the war in Vietnam repugnant and tried hard not to go. But, a quarter-century later, only Clinton is still paying the price for it.