My friend and colleague Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News wrote a much-remarked column last month telling his brothers and sisters in the trade not to play "gotcha" with Texas Gov. George W. Bush's military record. His service in the Texas Air National Guard, which was described in the Los Angeles Times, was legal and honorable--even dangerous. Lars-Erik has a reputation for being sharp and fair, and attention was paid.
The Washington Post has just published a seven-part series about Bush's life, and the reporters, George Lardner and Lois Romano, gave Bush the chance to talk about the Vietnam years. People who had no trouble with what he did are now having trouble with what he says.
Bush is asking us to believe that it was just a happy chance that in 1968, when a bad war was at its worst, the Air National Guard had a slot for a pilot. His father's position as a congressman had nothing to do with it. He had always wanted to fly, he said. He wanted to emulate his father, a naval aviator. It wasn't to avoid Vietnam service that he enlisted in the Guard. It was "to become a pilot."
It may not be essential for the country to hear the naked truth from those political figures who so obviously did not want to go to the jungles to die for God knows what. While there was at the time no opprobrium attached to those who did everything they could to avoid the draft, the country, which lost 58,000 young men, may never be ready for a politician to say, "No, like thousands of others in my generation, I did not want to go to Vietnam." Bill Clinton, heaven knows, spent several years dodging the draft--and spent many anxious hours during the 1992 campaign dodging questions about it. His biographer, Post reporter David Maraniss, politely calls his answers "incomplete or contradictory." The worst whopper was that he did not remember receiving his induction notice.
George Stephanopoulos, who was one of Clinton's top spinners, could be called something of a connoisseur in the field. He finds Bush's responses "gratuitously fudging."
"Why wouldn't he just say he got some help in getting into the Guard and was grateful for it?"
But where Bush imposes most is in his recollections of the Vietnam era as seen from a college campus in 1968, the year he was graduated from Yale. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, which was given to drink and song; he was also a member of the ultra-exclusive Skull and Bones Society. But it is difficult to believe that even in those havens of levity and privilege, the obsession of the time did not come up.
Yale by 1968 was a stronghold of protest and dissent. The chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, was a high priest of the anti-war movement, a leader in draft-card burnings, teach-ins, demonstrations and marches.
People talked draft strategy endlessly, according to writer Scott Armstrong, a 1968 classmate of Bush's. When they were classified 1-A, they starved themselves, stuffed themselves in hopes of flunking the draft board physicals. They got letters from psychiatrists to certify their instability. They feigned mental illness, they feigned homosexuality. They got married, they sought admission to divinity school. They joined the Peace Corps. They joined other services. They tried to enlist in the National Guard, which had thousands of applicants.
Of the 26 million men who were of draft age during the Vietnam era, 3,250 eligible Americans chose prison over induction. Thirty thousand went to Canada. Another thousand fled to Sweden. It was a time of bitter division. Some World War II veterans were enraged over their sons' refusal to serve. Thousands of other parents marched in sympathy in mammoth protests in Washington.
But George W. Bush doesn't remember it. "I don't remember debates," he told The Post writers. "I don't think we spent a lot of time debating it. Maybe we did, but I don't remember."
For him, scion of a famous family--his grandfather had been a U.S. senator, his father was a sitting congressman--not to have taken part in the turmoil is understandable. But for him not to have noticed it seriously strains credulity. It also makes you wonder. Isn't observation needed in a president's toolbox? Bush's conservative admirers in Congress will not be dismayed. They were always ambivalent about the war. They supported it, but none had sons who went to fight it.
The right has registered no dismay. Bush served his full time in the Guard. He was faithful and conscientious in service. The Republicans won't mind that he hasn't figured out a way to talk plausibly about those awful years. Bush himself may figure that the country has no stomach for reliving the Clinton fuss about Vietnam.