Ronald Reagan was "terribly hurt" last week. Congress overrode his veto of an appropriations bill. This week it is retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland's turn. He said he was "terribly, terribly hurt" after being accused on a CBS television program of falsifying figures indicating enemy strength in Vietnam.
Being "terribly hurt" is usually a declaration with intent to make the hearer feel terribly guilty. It is pressed into service by parents wishing to make the point to children who have forgotten their birthdays or failed to call. Public men use it for the same purpose.
Reagan's statement may indeed have caused Republican members of Congress to hide their heads -- and vow to vote with him another time. Westmoreland, however, is not just out to make CBS Inc. feel bad. He is asking for $120 million in a libel suit.
The general appeared here yesterday at a news conference looking only slightly grayer and heavier than when he was the storybook commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and periodically flown here to invite Washington to view with him the light at the end of the tunnel. He always looked victorious then, with his deepset dark eyes, beetling brows and rock-like jaw. But he always impressed the White House and the Congress more than the Viet Cong, and it ended badly.
He has, he said, no desire to refight the Vietnam war. He does not wish to "go to battle once again."
It is not entirely clear how he can defend himself against allegations that intelligence figures about VC infiltration were suppressed and altered in advance of the 1968 Tet offensive without reopening the whole wretched question of the war itself -- those body counts, pacification, the president who wanted to nail the coonskin to the wall, a country that roiled with protest.
What is clear, though, is that the general has carefully chosen his allies, the Capital Legal Foundation, a conservative organization and right-wing Nader-type operation headed by a gung-ho 40-year-old named Dan Burt, who answered questions aimed at the general yesterday.
And the general has been canny about the terrain. The suit is being brought in federal court in South Carolina, where a majority of the inhabitants subscribe to Ronald Reagan's view of Vietnam as a "noble cause."
The Greenville, S.C., courthouse is about 30 miles from Westmoreland's birthplace in Spartanburg. Presumably, a jury will be found that will thrill to his calls to "duty, honor, country" and will vibrate in sympathy to his plaint that CBS aired its documentary "several days before my 68th birthday," a circumstance he finds especially exacerbating.
The old soldier was inspired to pick up his sword and shield, he said in his prepared statement, by the valor and drive of two TV Guide magazine reporters, who in May wrote "Anatomy of a Smear, How CBS Broke the Rules and 'Got' General Westmoreland."
He attempted to parley with CBS in August but, in keeping with the history of the war itself, the negotiations failed. The general sought 45 minutes of air time, to be under his complete control; an apology, and compensation.
CBS countered with an offer of 15 minutes to give his side of the story. He refused, and the trumpets have sounded.
The key witness against Westmoreland is a retired colonel of intelligence and onetime teacher of English literature, Gains Hawkins, who lives in West Point, Miss., where he runs a private, 54-bed nursing home.
Hawkins, a Mississippi native and graduate of Ole Miss, appeared on "CBS Reports" and said that in 1967, before Tet shattered U.S. support for the war, he gave Westmoreland the bad news about a dramatic increase in enemy strength estimates, "something on the order of 200,000 VC."
He recounted to CBS reporter Mike Wallace the general's distress: "What am I going to tell the press? What am I going to tell the Congress? What am I going to tell the president?"
Hawkins said over the telephone that he went on the show because "I thought it was just about time to say what had happened. I had lied about what I had done before. I thought it was the best thing to do. I felt it was time to come clean. By giving the wrong estimates, we were doing damage to our own side."
The people of West Point, Miss., were divided in their reaction to Hawkins' expose. Some said he had done the right thing. About the same number said, "Why bring it up after all these years?"
Hawkins is resigned to being called as a witness against his former commander. "I'm in it up to my neck," he said.
He doesn't think it would be such a bad idea to vent in a South Carolina courthouse the acrimony and anguish that Vietnam unfailingly generates.
"It could bring catharsis," he said.
If Westmoreland wins his war against CBS, he said, he will give the money to charity, which means that something good might finally come out of Vietnam.