Riding a wave of popular support in the wake of last year’s victory in the Persian Gulf War, President George Bush seemed poised to win re-election. After two decades of national soul-searching that followed a doomed U.S. adventure in Southeast Asia, the crushing defeat of Iraq led the jubilant commander-in-chief to declare: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” And as they turned out in overwhelming numbers to welcome home Desert Storm veterans, flag-waving Americans seemed confident that their leaders had actually managed to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam. But as this year’s race for the White House enters its closing weeks and Bush trails badly in the polls, Republicans are again invoking the spectre of the longest war in U.S. history—a divisive conflict that claimed 57,939 American lives.
In an attempt to undermine the popularity of Democrat William Clinton, the Bush campaign has intensified efforts to challenge the credibility of the 46-year-old Arkansas governor for failing to fully disclose how he escaped military service during the Vietnam War. But as Bush and his supporters, including Vice-President Dan Quay le, continued last week to urge Clinton to “come clean” on his draft avoidance, it seemed that their offensive was failing.
An ABC NewsWashington Post poll released on Sept. 22 showed that as the Bush campaign pressed the draft issue, Clinton had widened his lead to 58 to 37 per cent, compared with a 54to-39-per-cent gap just a week earlier. Only 16 per cent of respondents said that they considered the draft to be a pivotal issue—compared with 89 per cent who cited the economy. And in extensive interviews around the United States, Maclean ’s reporters found little sign that the Republican strategy was working. “It is just not a big deal,” said Steven Stathas, 42, an air force veteran from Kansas City, Kan., who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. “Everybody is saying, ‘Let’s talk about the economy, let’s forget what happened 20 years ago.’ ” According to statements from the Bush team, what is at issue is not whether Clinton, who acknowledges that he opposed the unpopular war, purposely tried to avoid military service. Rather, they claim, the candidate’s evasive accounting of how he avoided the draft calls his trustworthiness into question.
Clinton has offered a number of explanations of how he escaped going to Vietnam, prompting allegations that he knowingly withheld information about his draft record. Until last February, he had insisted that while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1969,
he was briefly available for the draft but was lucky enough not to be called. But intensive media investigations forced Clinton to concede that he secured a draft deferment that he had never previously acknowledged. That deferment resulted from a complex series of events, which included making a commitment—which Clinton did not keep—to enrol in a Reserve
Officers Training Corps program at the University of Arkansas, and enlisting the help of family and friends. The Los Angeles Times also reported that Clinton personally lobbied the senior draft board official in Arkansas to have an army induction notice cancelled.
Contrasted with the military experience of Bush—a former Navy flyer who was shot down in the South Pacific during a 1944 bombing mission—Clinton’s inexperience has led some Americans to question his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief. “I want someone in the White House who knows what he is doing,” said George Ronbach of New Orleans, who was a private during the Second World War. Added Dennis Boland, a 50-year-old Vietnam veteran from La Belle, Fla.: “I would hate to see someone running our country who did not serve in the military. I think for people who have served, it will always be on their mind.”
Still, many Americans who did serve in Vietnam told Maclean ’s that the draft issue will not influence their vote. Hugh Hess, 46, a retired army lieutenant colonel who was in
Vietnam in 1972, recalled that his university roommate drove to a draft physical with the top down on his convertible to induce an asthma attack. Said Hess, who now lives in Lansing, Mich.: “It didn’t bother me at the time and quite frankly it doesn’t bother me now.”
Dyke Shannon, 45, who served as an army captain in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, said that “the name of the game back then” was to try to get a deferment. “Unlike the Second World War when the entire country was committed, Vietnam was obviously a questionable war,” he declared. “If you were called, you served, but if you had a choice, you declined.” And John Lawhead of Moreno Valley, Calif., said that although he eventually had to serve in the army in El Paso, Tex., “I tried to get out of it too.” He added: “Nobody wanted to go.”
According to Ronald Spector, a historian at George Washington University who is an ex-
pert on the draft, that is indeed the case. “Most people who went would rather have not served, and the people who did serve also know that they would have avoided service if they could have,” he claimed. Spector, himself a Marine Corps veteran who served for a year in Vietnam, added: “It is a minority—although they are very vocal—who either served out of conviction or discovered retrospectively that they served out of conviction.”
Spector pointed out that a disproportionate number of working-class and minority Americans were drafted. But many privileged whites who “had the means and the knowledge,” he said, escaped the war through student deferments or National Guard service, as Quayle did in Indiana in 1969. Said Spector: “For members of that generation who later became the yuppies, the kind of people who run for office, the kind of people who write editorials and appear on talk shows and run for Con-
gress, this was the common experience.” Some Vietnam veterans do indeed express bitterness towards those who tried to avoid military service while they fought. But others acknowledge that their war service has made them sympathetic to Clinton’s position. “I enlisted in the Marine Corps because I wanted to kill a Commie for Mommie,” said John Lindquist, 44, from Milwaukee, Wis. “But I turned 180 degrees because of my experience in Vietnam.” Lindquist—a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who threw away his seven medals on the steps of the Capitol in 1971—questions the Bush campaign’s motives in emphasizing the draft issue. “These are the same people who could care less about veterans,” he said with emotion, pointing to cuts in veterans’ benefits under 12 years of Republican rule. Added Peter Zastrow, 53, of Chicago, who was an air cavalry captain in Vietnam: “Clinton’s opposition to the Vietnam war—and hopefully his opposition to any other wars that may be similar— was absolutely right.”
Still other Vietnam veterans say that they are resentful that Quayle shielded himself from the draft in the National Guard—and may have used family connections to secure a spot in an elite unit that was never sent to Southeast Asia. “I find people more disturbed with the fact that Quayle, who is pro-war, found a way to get out than they are with the fact that Clinton, who was against the war, didn’t want to go,” said Barry Romo, who served as a platoon commander in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. 5Romo, now 45 and living in g Chicago, added: “The Repub“■ licans are shooting themselves in the foot again and again and again.”
But even though the initial attacks on Clinton’s wartime record do not appear to resonate with voters, Republican strategists say that they will continue to stress the issue. While analysts say that, on its own, Clinton’s draft record is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, the accumulated negative attacks on his character may chip away some of his support. Stephen Hess of Washington’s non-partisan Brookings Institution predicts that the negative campaign will heat up. But he added: “The odds are that Clinton is going to get elected president—and elected president having worked hard at not serving in Vietnam and chosen by a nation that did fight because that was the government’s policy. Maybe it will take an election like that to put the war behind us.”
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