'60s draft issue lets Bush avoid '90s realities

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 17, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This is craziness, is it not? Bill Clinton dodges the draft 23 years ago, and George Bush wants to call it a problem facing America?

This is self-destructiveness of the highest order: not Clinton's, but Bush's. Not just the Democrats, but all those in America -- Republicans, peaceniks, embittered veterans of all those Lyndon Johnson/Richard Nixon midnight obsessions, everybody alive back then -- still pained by that bloody war in Vietnam and still hoping we could one day put it behind us. Isn't there a statute of limitations on the agonizing of a 23-year-old in Arkansas in 1969?

In Salt Lake City on Tuesday, speaking to an audience of National Guard officers, Bush alluded to Clinton's draft evasions, declaring, "Why do these questions even matter? Why are they part of our national debate?" -- and then attempted to say why.

Here are the real answers: They're part of the national debate because George Bush has put them there. They matter because they signal a president who does not wish to discuss subjects too close to events of the last four years.

You can walk along York Road in the heart of middle-class Towson today and talk to shop owners worried that their businesses will not survive the current recession. You can stroll into the central Enoch Pratt Library and see homeless people who haven't suddenly discovered literature -- they've got no other place to rest their bones comfortably. You can walk through any housing project in the city and -- well, you wouldn't actually, because the drug dealing and the gunplay and the rage are now so widespread that you fear for your life.

These are things the president of the United States wishes us not to think about when he brings up Bill Clinton's draft record of 23 years ago. A man with George Bush's well-documented and courageous military background knows the term for it: It's a diversionary tactic.

Nearly four years ago, Bush took the oath of office and declared, "The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory."

In the flush of victory, he could afford to be magnanimous back then, a great embracer, a man who talked of a kinder, gentler nation and healing old wounds. Now, deep in political trouble, he takes us for fools.

In Annapolis, the governor of Maryland cuts and slashes at a state budget already in tatters. In Baltimore County, Roger Hayden gives pay raises to some high-ranking aides and catches hell for it. And why not? Nobody else on the county payroll is getting raises -- there's no money for it. In the city, Kurt Schmoke hears the talk that the great Baltimore renaissance is dead and wonders if people understand: There hasn't been help from Washington for 12 years now.

And so, if George Bush can make enough noise about Bill Clinton and Vietnam in 1969, he thinks maybe people won't think about America in 1992.

In Salt Lake City, Bush did a little rewrite of history for the National Guard officers. He ridiculed the notion that the Guard was a haven for draft avoiders during the Vietnam War and recalled Dan Quayle's "candor" on the subject four years ago.

"No candidate has ever been attacked more unmercifully than Vice President Quayle," said Bush. "But he stood his ground. And he answered every question calmly and with candor, and he told the truth. And this is service to country."

The president thinks we're stupid. No other explanation is conceivable. He thinks we don't know, or can't remember, why young men joined the National Guard when the war dragged on and on. For millions, it was simple: They didn't want to die in some miserable rice paddy for some unclear political reason in some other nation's war.

Dan Quayle was one of them, scrambling for his own survival. What neither he nor Bush seems to understand is that Quayle's National Guard service isn't the knock against him. It's his two faces. Having beaten the draft, he went on to become one of the country's great hawks. War was fine, as long as it wasn't threatening him.

But George Bush used a nice phrase in Salt Lake City: "service to country." That's another point he wishes us not to notice about Bill Clinton: He avoided military service, which is not the same as avoiding service to country.

Clinton's made government his life's work. Doesn't that count, or is it only considered service if you're putting your life in danger? Is there some sort of implicit macho test that no one's consciously expressing?

Some people did a year of community service instead of going to war. Clinton's done 12 years in the Arkansas statehouse. Isn't that community service? Did he have to master close-order drill in order to qualify for office?

This Vietnam business is lamentable, but not only for Clinton. For the nation, it opens old wounds unnecessarily. For Bush, it shows a level of graceless desperation. If there was real substance here, you'd hear cries of outrage from everybody who ever served in Vietnam.

But they remember what it was like. They recall the anxiety of those times, the frantic calls to distant acquaintances who might have connections with the National Guard, the imagined flights across the Canadian border, the friends brought home in body bags.

Now we've let Bush dictate the debate again. All these years later, it's too late for guilt over Vietnam. We're a nation living behind locked doors today, worrying about some junkie with a gun, some bill collector with papers to foreclose on our lives, some dread arrival of today's bad news -- and not the sad story of a kid in Arkansas another world ago.

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