Back in the '60s, winds of change blew against draft

MIKE LITTWIN

October 21, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

OK, strap on your love beads, gather up your CCR records, let your hair grow long. We're going back to 1969 and set this thing straight.

See, there's Bill Clinton, this earnest, even then, wonk who thinks he wants to be president. He's no radical. He goes to school, where, you know, he hangs out in the library. He doesn't burn flags; he wins Rhodes scholarships. Come on, Clinton no more drops out than Marilyn "Essence de Femme" Quayle does. This guy's hero was Jack Kennedy, not Che. Abby Hoffman wouldn't even look at him.

Clinton is, except for the no-inhaling business, just like any other college student of his time, only more so. He's the All-American kid.

George Bush knows this. He could look it up, or have the FBI do it.

If you were a typical male college student in the late '60s, maybe you marched in protests or maybe you didn't, maybe you were SDS or maybe you were Young Republican, but almost certainly you never went more than 15 minutes without thinking of how to beat the draft.

Evading (OK, dodging) the draft was a cottage industry. People wrote how-to books. There were draft counselors on virtually every campus in America. Lawyers specialized in conscientious-objector cases, attracting thousands of Gandhi wannabes, many of whom are stockbrokers today.

Clinton dodged the draft. So did Dan Quayle. Dick Cheney got a series of deferments. George Bush's son of that era served in the Texas Air National Guard.

Your parents pulled strings. You got a lawyer. If you got a draft notice, you tried to flunk the physical. There were well-known tricks. If you ate enough bananas, your blood pressure would go ballistic. You fasted. I knew a guy, 5-foot-11, 135 pounds, who got under the 118-pound limit. He didn't get a CO, but he looked like Gandhi. At the end of the physical, you could talk to a shrink. The line at the door looked like the line at Woodstock. And the stories were better. Let's see, did I hate dad and love the dog, or was it the other way around?

Of course, not everyone dodged the draft. Some even joined up.

I have a friend I'll call Jim. He was what they called at the time gung-ho. He dropped out of college, joined the Marines, couldn't wait to get to Nam.

He served his two years, came home all in one piece. His body was fine. It's his life that fell apart.

He got jobs and lost them. He married and was divorced. He had a little girl and never saw her. In fact, he stopped seeing everybody. He would just sit in his apartment, drink too much, eat too little, not take care of himself. He could no longer deal with life.

Last year, 20-odd years after he returned from Vietnam, his parents finally got him to a doctor, who suggested that he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. There are people who think this is a phony-baloney disease used by bleeding hearts to excuse antisocial behavior -- a different kind of dodge.

All I know is he went to a VA hospital, where the doctors examined him for a long time and concluded, as did the original doctor, that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome from his Vietnam tour. He filled out forms. Got some money from the government. And he stayed in a dorm-like room at the hospital until about two months ago when the doctors told him they would have to treat him as an out-patient.

The day before he was supposed to leave, he vanished. His stuff -- a new camera, a new radio -- was still in his room. Nobody knew where he was. His relatives filed a missing-persons complaint with the police, who, after studying the matter, were afraid he might have come to some harm.

Two weeks later, there was a phone call. It was Jim. He was holed up in some hotel room. He said he had sought refuge there because he thought the Viet Cong were after him. Yes, the Viet Cong. This happened last month.

Clinton was asked at the debate Monday night if he regretted not having served. It's a hard question. Bush, defender of urban youth, talked about the "ghetto kids" who went to Vietnam. He thinks every black kid is from a ghetto? Clinton knows better. He knows who went and who died and who stayed home. He knows how the system was unfair. And so, he waffled. Instead of just saying the war was wrong, he added, "It's easy to say in retrospect I would have done something differently."

But in his heart, he knows he was right. And maybe if he gets elected, nobody will have to answer that question again.

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