Ashcroft got draft deferral to teach law

Attorney general pick avoided Vietnam in taking job at college

January 16, 2001|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

Even those dedicated to the multiple-front offensive being waged against former Sen. John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general do not quibble with his longtime commitment to public service: two-term Missouri attorney general, two-term Missouri governor and six years in the U.S. Senate.

But when Ashcroft faced induction into the Army in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he sought an occupational deferment from his local draft board on the grounds that his civilian job was critical. The Springfield, Mo., board approved the deferment.

The critical job for the new 25-year-old law school graduate was teaching business law to undergraduate business students at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.

Ashcroft's teaching position was offered by an SMSU business professor who was an active member of the Assemblies of God church where Ashcroft's father was pastor and an influential figure in the community. That professor, Vencil Bixler, said last week that Ashcroft knew he would not escape the draft without the teaching job and the deferment it afforded him.

Bixler said Ashcroft was offered the teaching job three months before he graduated from law school at the University of Chicago. At the time of his graduation, Ashcroft had passed a preinduction physical and would have been quickly drafted but for the offer by SMSU and the decision by his hometown draft board.

Ashcroft was among hundreds of thousands of men in his age group who took advantage of various deferments to sidestep service during the war. And many local draft boards liberally interpreted what constituted a critical job.

In early 1968 a Cabinet task force concluded that occupational deferments were no longer needed and urged that they be ended. The task force noted that "the lack of need" for such deferments was underscored by the fact that more than half of them had been awarded to people who did not hold critical civilian jobs.

Under Selective Service guidelines in force in 1967, Ashcroft's position was not deemed critical to the economy, according to documents examined by The Boston Globe.

Senator John F. Kerry, a Democrat of Massachusetts, who was decorated for heroism in Vietnam, said the focus on Ashcroft needs to remain on his conservative views, which will be aired when his confirmation hearings start today. And Kerry said the war was so divisive that he long ago ceased questioning choices other men made in the 1960s.

But he said Ashcroft's wartime choice "fits a pattern of a lot of hard-line, conservative hawks with a similar history of avoidance of personal responsibility."

Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for President-elect George W. Bush who has been fielding questions for Ashcroft, said that SMSU was "pretty adamant" about having the new law school graduate teach there. "He was not seeking to avoid military service," Tucker said.

Like many others who went to college and graduate school during the 1960s, Ashcroft received regular student deferments during his undergraduate years at Yale University, where he graduated in 1964, and his three years at law school in Chicago. In May 1967, his local draft board earmarked him for induction, according to his Selective Service records.

But in June, the board reversed itself and awarded Ashcroft the occupational deferment on the basis of the prospective teaching position, which began in September 1967.

A Boston Globe review of the decisions made by the Green County, Mo., Selective Service Board, which includes Springfield, found that few of Ashcroft's contemporaries were awarded occupational deferments. Of the 984 men born in 1942 like Ashcroft, 34 were able to avoid military service by getting and keeping, those deferments.

The month Ashcroft won his deferment, occupational deferments were held by 264,000 men nationwide - out of more than 35 million men who were registered with the Selective Service.

Even after the Cabinet-level group recommended an end to occupational deferments months after Ashcroft won his, Selective Service Director General Lewis B. Hershey continued to allow local boards to grant them, based on local needs. So in June 1968, Ashcroft's occupational deferment was continued.

In late 1968, while he still held the occupational deferment, Ashcroft also established a private law practice in Springfield with his wife, Janet, and stopped teaching.

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