The military draft issue can shoot two ways

MIKE ROYKO

September 21, 1992|By MIKE ROYKO

Bill Clinton is being cuffed around daily for having ducked the Vietnam War. When the press isn't demanding that he reveal more, more, and more, Republicans are clucking that his aversion to rice paddies might be a character defect.

But it's only fair. It sort of balances the political books.

Just four years ago, Dan Quayle went through the same grilling. Only minutes after he was trotted out as George Bush's blank-stare running mate, reporters and Democrats looked at his biography and gleefully said: "Ah-hah! The Indiana National Guard. Now, how did he swing that?"

Although Quayle denied it, the answer seemed obvious: He came from the most powerful family in Indiana. So he had the good fortune to be accepted by the National Guard, and he spent the war defending the Indy 500 from invasion by the Viet Cong.

This was a standard draft sidestep for the rich, the sons of politicians, professional athletes and others with clout.

Every autumn Sunday during those years, superb physical specimens would put on helmets and do battle on National Football League fields.

Why weren't these draft-age Adonis-types over there doing battle with the godless commies? Because the wealthy men who owned the franchises greased their way into stay-home reserve units.

Like any self-respecting son of a politician, one of George Bush's sons spent the war in the Texas Air National Guard. Not once did the Viet Cong violate Texas' airspace, so the lad must have done his job valiantly.

But Bush now drops sly remarks about Clinton's college deferments. Well, if Clinton's daddy had been as rich and influential as Bush, maybe Clinton could have cleaned windshields in the Arkansas Air National Guard.

So if true military service (the kind in which you might actually get your butt shot off) is going to be a political litmus test, it's a risky one for both parties.

There are many prominent conservative Republicans, such as Rep. Newt Gingrich, who took the same route as Clinton, using student deferments to save their skins. Unlike Clinton, many were hawks who thought the war was really great, so long as some farm boy or ghetto kid was doing the fighting.

That's one of the reasons the war went on so long and at such great cost. Those body bags didn't contain the sons of senators and their wealthy chums. Their sons were in stay-home reserve units or on campus. If the draft had been fair and without loopholes, the war would have been won or abandoned many years and many lives earlier.

Actually, military service is a silly issue. One the one hand, we had Ronald Reagan, who was in World War II, sort of. So his admirers thought of him as a real macho guy.

In reality, the Army made him an officer and a gentleman, then he spent the war in Hollywood making propaganda films. Women who worked in defense plants were in greater physical danger from falling rivets.

On the other hand, we had George McGovern, a liberal who was viewed as a real weenie by Reagan conservatives. Yet McGovern was a combat pilot and a genuine hero.

But Reagan's soft Hollywood duty didn't diminish his political popularity, just as McGovern's tough combat experience didn't improve his. And Quayle survived all the questions about his family's clout. If anything, Quayle now talks as if his Indiana unit almost stormed Hanoi.

So to most voters it doesn't matter. If it did, the presidential candidates would be Republican Sen. Robert Dole, who was almost shot to pieces as a World War II grunt, and Democratic Sen. Robert Kerrey, who lost a leg and gained a Medal of Honor in Vietnam. But the primary voters of their parties turned them down.

In time, the national press corps, which grabbed the draft issue because it is bored with speeches about the economy and jobs and medical care, will tire of asking Clinton about his deferments. He's already confessed that he didn't want to go and did just about everything he could to avoid going.

What more do they expect him to say? That he was contemplating a sex change?

I'm sorry I mentioned that. It will probably be the first question at his next press conference.

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