ARLINGTON, Va. -- Didn't we already fight the battle over the National Guard?
It was 1988, and Dan Quayle had just been selected by presidential nominee George H.W. Bush as his running mate. At a news conference in New Orleans, Mr. Quayle was asked about his military service in the National Guard by ABC reporter Susan King.
Mr. Quayle made what some reporters thought was a suspect defense of his motives for joining the Guard. The media accused Mr. Quayle of becoming a guardsman to avoid service in Vietnam.
Many of the assertions being made today about President Bush's Guard service were made against Mr. Quayle in 1988. They included people's motives for joining the Guard and stories about those who avoided military service through student deferments, high draft lottery numbers or string-pulling.
Could we please get back to issues, which are far more important than who did what and where more than 30 years ago? Does it matter now that Sen. John Kerry and Jane Fonda attended an anti-war rally and that a picture of them has been circulated on the Internet and subsequently in many newspapers?
I have a picture of Jane Fonda and me together (though not at an anti-war rally). I also have pictures of me with Ted Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Norman Lear and Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel, of New York.
The gay congressman Barney Frank and I spent the night in the same hotel following a debate (we were in separate rooms). Al Gore and I have been in each other's company. Does any of this prove something about me? Only that I have a lot of liberal friends and acquaintances.
In 1965, I enlisted in the Army in order to avoid the draft because I was told the chances of getting a good assignment (non-combat) were greater for enlistees than for draftees. I pulled some strings and was assigned to Armed Forces Radio and Television in New York where I fought at Broadway and West 57th Street. When the bureau closed and moved to Washington, lower-ranking enlisted men like me were to be shipped to Vietnam, not to serve in combat roles but to broadcast to troops from Saigon, which I was already doing from New York.
I was married with kids by then and had served about half the time I had promised the Army when I signed up. I requested and received an early and honorable discharge.
Would this part of my life story disqualify me from running for president? Should it? Only if my opponents tried to spin it in a way that would damage whatever credibility I have today.
And that is the line of attack Democrats, who defended Bill Clinton's crafty avoidance of service, are pursuing against President Bush. Credibility has been President Bush's strongest asset, especially following the Clinton years.
President Bush should quickly change the subject. What signal would it send to our highly motivated enemies should America change leaders in midwar? One of the reasons the United States prevailed in World War II was the four terms to which Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected. Continuity at home helped prosecute and win the war against Germany and Japan. The stakes today are higher. We cannot afford trivial pursuits in presidential politics during wartime.
This isn't a game. It is about the survival of the United States and the values associated with Western traditions. Rejecting an administration that has built a (so far) successful defense against terrorism following 9/11 in favor of one with no such experience could give America's enemies a unique window of opportunity to hit us again, and harder.
This is the line the Bush re-election team should take. We are at war, and we are likely to remain at war for a very long time. Political games can be played after we win. They should not be played during the battle.
Let's forget the National Guard and what John Kerry did more than 30 years ago. These have nothing to do with the current war, and pretending that they do will only make us more vulnerable in the crucial conflict to ensure our survival.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.