It was as well for George W. Bush, who avoided Vietnam as a congressman’s son by receiving a coveted spot in the so-called Champagne Unit of the Texas Air National Guard, along with other sons of prominent politicians and several members of the Dallas Cowboys.
So why have we barely ever talked about Donald Trump’s draft avoidance?
The simplest answer is that there was so much that was shocking about Trump when he ran for president in 2016 — both in his past and in the way he was acting as a candidate — that it seemed too trivial to worry about. Or perhaps the cultural wounds of the 1960s had faded a bit. But I’m pretty sure that had Trump been a Democrat, it would have been a huge issue because Republicans would have made it so.
Regardless of why it wasn’t a more prominent issue, some Democrats — especially the veterans running for president — are now calling President Trump out.
Before we get to what they’re saying and whether it’s justified — and whether we should care at all — let’s remind ourselves of how Trump avoided serving. As a college student, he had deferments until he graduated in 1968. Shortly afterward, he obtained a felicitous doctor’s note testifying to his burden of debilitating bone spurs in his heel, though later he could not remember which foot was so afflicted. “I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels,” he said in 2016.
Yet we know that Trump was an enthusiastic athlete as a young man, pursuits that did not seem to be impeded by his supposedly tender heels. And, at the time, obtaining a dubious medical deferment was not at all uncommon for the sons of wealthy men such as Fred Trump. Given that the elder Trump would later engineer a tax scheme defrauding the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars, it isn’t difficult to imagine him believing that the rules didn’t apply to him, and no son of his was going to go halfway around the world to trudge through the jungle and risk getting shot.
So someone else served in Donald Trump’s place, and now Democrats have decided this is worth talking about. First out of the gate was South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, who has framed this issue not just as one of duty to country but also in terms of disability. Here’s what he said on ABC’s "This Week" on Sunday:
There is no question, I think, to any reasonable observer that the president found a way to falsify a disabled status, taking advantage of his privileged status in order to avoid serving. You have somebody who thinks it’s all right to let somebody go in his place into a deadly war and is willing to pretend to be disabled in order to do it. That is an assault on the honor of this country.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who is also a veteran (Buttigieg served as a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan; Moulton had substantial combat experience as a Marine in Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star) has criticized the president in a similar fashion:
I don’t think that lying to get out of serving your country is patriotic. It’s not like there was just some empty seat in Vietnam. Someone had to go in his place. I’d like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.
So should we care? The simplest answer is that we should because this is about character. But to be honest, I find that justification less than satisfying. First, millions of Americans found ways to avoid serving in Vietnam, because they believed the war was wrong and because they didn’t want to die in a misbegotten disaster. However we view the decision they made as young men, we probably wouldn’t want to exclude all of them from high office or say that it’s proof of a deficient character even now, half a century later.
Perhaps more to the point, by now it’s clear that when it comes to character deficiencies, Trump has so many that this incident tells us nothing we didn’t already know. What’s so disturbing about the president isn’t the thing he did that millions of others also did, but the things he does that make him unique. He is corrupt, dishonest, cruel, petty, vindictive, childish and narcissistic; the man is a walking collection of character flaws without a single identifiable virtue to balance them out. So it’s difficult to get too worked up over the fact that he dodged the draft. Of course he did — if you didn’t know it already, would you have expected anything else?
Finally, though I’m sometimes hesitant to treat Republicans by standards they aren’t willing to live up in their treatment of others, I would argue that even when it comes to Donald Trump, questioning anyone’s patriotism seldom does any of us any good. Elections shouldn’t be a contest of “Who loves America more?”, because it’s a question that doesn’t get anyone closer to a good decision. It’s just a bludgeon, usually used with bad evidence and bad intentions — and it will always be used more against liberals. Far better to argue that it shouldn’t be wielded against anyone, even Donald Trump.
To be clear, I’m not saying no one should criticize Trump for what he did to avoid the draft. If you want to, go right ahead. It’s a story that illustrates his privileged upbringing, the unfair advantages he was granted throughout his life, his dishonesty, and his willingness to take advantage of others for his own ends. But then again, we already knew all that.