We begin with a story in Wednesday’s New York Times by Steve Eder, one fitting into that category of revelatory scoops that should surprise no one:
In the fall of 1968, Donald J. Trump received a timely diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that led to his medical exemption from the military during Vietnam.For 50 years, the details of how the exemption came about, and who made the diagnosis, have remained a mystery, with Mr. Trump himself saying during the presidential campaign that he could not recall who had signed off on the medical documentation.Now a possible explanation has emerged about the documentation. It involves a foot doctor in Queens who rented his office from Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and a suggestion that the diagnosis was granted as a courtesy to the elder Mr. Trump.
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that there is someone in America who believes that Donald Trump avoided service in Vietnam through perfectly legitimate means, and his “bone spurs” both existed and were so debilitating that the self-described star athlete could not have endured marches through the jungle on his tender heels. But really: We all understand that like so many young men at the time, Trump didn’t want to go, and so he did what he could to get out of it. There were people without his wealth who managed it, too, but in his case it appears that his father made a call to a podiatrist he knew, who provided the appropriate paperwork. As Trump himself said during the campaign, “I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels.”
This was one of many potentially problematic stories about Trump that were given only cursory attention in 2016, and not much would have changed had it been the subject of more scrutiny. But one can't help but notice the sharp contrast with the experience of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom also took steps to avoid going to Vietnam. In their presidential campaigns, those efforts were huge controversies, to which large numbers of journalists were assigned to investigate and write stories.
Of course, partisans viewed their cases through wildly different lenses. Clinton — who used student deferments to avoid Vietnam — was attacked by conservatives as practically a traitor, an unpatriotic con artist who weaseled his way out of service, leaving someone else to fight and perhaps die in his place. Eight years later, liberals looked at George W. Bush — who as the son of a congressman avoided Vietnam by garnering a coveted spot in the “Champagne Unit” of the Texas Air Guard, along with the sons of other Lone Star politicians and a few members of the Dallas Cowboys — and saw an elitist phony who pretended to adore the military but saved his own hide when his country called.
Both had their records carefully scrutinized, scrutiny Trump avoided. Why was that? One obvious answer is that there was just so much else to talk about when it came to Trump (and the media did need to devote its time to writing thousands of stories about the far more urgent question of whether Hillary Clinton used the wrong email). It’s also possible that the passage of time has taught us that the question of Vietnam service doesn’t really tell us much about what sort of president a person would be. The intervening eight years of the presidency of Barack Obama, described as our first post-boomer president, may have made it seem less important.
Another question is why Trump’s draft avoidance didn’t bother conservatives, especially when you combined it with the evident contempt he displayed for actual military service; you’ll recall that during the campaign he said John McCain wasn’t a war hero because “I like people that weren’t captured,” then went on to pick a nasty fight with a Gold Star family. My suspicion is that the answer lies in the fact that whatever he has done in his personal life, Trump has made it clear to the right that when it comes to the cultural divide of the 1960s, he’s firmly on their side.
Despite having been of the appropriate age, Trump himself wasn’t much a part of that turmoil, of the hippies vs. the squares, those who embraced cultural change vs. those horrified by it. I doubt he even gave much thought to whether Vietnam was right or wrong, as so many of his generation did. Trump, as always, was worried only about getting his, making money and accruing signifiers of wealth and status; he didn’t have time for any of it. But he knows that those battles still resonate today, particularly among the older conservatives who form such a key part of his base.
Trump signals to those voters that he’s on their side in all kinds of ways, but perhaps most importantly through race, and his highly visible attacks on African Americans who get too uppity (or in today’s parlance, show themselves to be “ungrateful”). For that too is a key legacy of the 1960s, and an important marker of what side of the culture war you’re on. And when he said he would “Make America Great Again,” what many of his most ardent supporters heard was that he’d wind the clock back to before the ’60s, before the longhairs and their rock music, before black people making demands, before immigrants came in speaking Spanish, back to when America was for people like you and everyone else knew their place.
Trump plays on those resentments in boundlessly cynical ways, but avoiding Vietnam is one of his lesser sins. It was certainly wrong that people with his wealth could easily get out of service when it wasn’t so simple for others, but no one can be blamed for not wanting to die in such a misbegotten war. And he’ll likely be our last baby boomer president, which means Vietnam service is one issue we won’t have to litigate again. Which is probably for the best.