Bush ship surges, but it still drags Quayle anchor. Why Vietnam specter haunts politicians
Washington — Following are two questions a lot of baby-boomer politicians don't want to hear: What did you do during the Vietnam War?
Should we care?
Those questions have been sparked by the furor over Sen. Dan Quayle's military record. Senator Quayle, the GOP's nominee for vice-president, served in the Indiana National Guard during the war - at the time, a sure-fire way to avoid combat in Southeast Asia.
The controversy has swirled mostly around the issue of whether Mr. Quayle used the considerable clout of his well-connected family to avoid war duty. But the ensuing debate has raised complicated and still-confusing questions about the duty of '60s generation men to serve in Vietnam and the duty of society to honor those veterans who survived the conflict.
``With a few exceptions, every politician in America wants this subject to go away,'' says John Wheeler, a Vietnam veteran and the director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Adds Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam: ``Frankly, I'm worried this debate could reopen a lot of old wounds.''
Indeed, the finger-pointing has already begun. Conservative supporters of Quayle, smarting from the public flogging their candidate has endured, have begun to rally to his defense by highlighting the modest service records of his peers.
``It's gotten a little hysterical,'' says Senator McCain.
On Monday, for example, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey decided not to run for president, in part, because he did not want his six-month active-duty tour in the Air Force Reserve held up to ridicule.
Instead, the editorial pointed out, Senator Bradley signed a four-year contract with the New York Knickerbockers, a professional basketball team, in the 1967-68 season worth more than $500,000, at the time a record sum.
``We can imagine the questions,'' the Journal editorialized. ``How did you feel about soldiers dying in Vietnam when you were being paid a half million to play games?''
The next day, the Washington Times ran the results of a survey showing that 126 of the 203 representatives and senators of draft age during the Vietnam War did not serve in the military at all. The survey claimed that 30 of those lawmakers joined the National Guard or Reserves and that 47 were drafted or enlisted for active duty. Of those who did not serve in any capacity, the study added, 29 sit on congressional committees that oversee United States military policies.
Vice-President George Bush, too, has joined the fray. He told a Chicago convention hall full of cheering war veterans Monday night that, although his running mate might not have served in Vietnam, ``He did not go to Canada, he did not burn his draft card, and he damn sure didn't burn the American flag.''
Mr. Bush's statements inflamed many Democrats, who believed he was reopening an old debate and, at the same time, subtly tagging Quayle's political opponents with the stigma of anti-Americanism.
``It was the most intellectually shabby kind of argument,'' fumed one Democratic strategist. ``It's like taking the credentials of a philanderer and saying, `He didn't beat his wife, he didn't abuse his children, and he paid the mortgage.' It's just all beside the point.''
Democrats and many Republicans argue that the point is not whether Quayle should have served in the National Guard or whether others should have behaved differently than they did during the Vietnam era.
``Quayle performed valid if not heroic service - he certainly did as much in Vietnam as Ronald Reagan did in World War II,'' says former Navy Secretary James Webb, Jr. (Reagan made military training films in Hollywood during World War II.)
The central and only questions in the controversy, these individuals insist, are whether Quayle pulled strings to shirk his duty then, and whether he has been truthful in answering questions about that time now.
``My first response to the stuff on Quayle was `I understand 100 percent.' I was completely ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hell, I didn't want to be there, either,'' says former Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg and won the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving his Navy tour of duty. ``But then when he started saying that he would have been ready to go to Vietnam at any time, my reaction was `yeah, right.'''
Still, the controversy has been taken up by press and public with an intensity suggesting that the Quayle affair has unearthed some deep seated anxieties about the Vietnam war and a generation's responsibilities in it. ``This thing has been floating underneath the waterline for years,'' says Mr. Webb, a Vietnam veteran himself and author of several books on Vietnam. ``I think we're seeing a symbolic vetting of it.''
In a 1975 article in The Washington Monthly entitled ``What did you do in the class war, Daddy?,'' author James Fallows wrote of his own guilt over the fact that he and his upper-middle-class peers had avoided participation in a war that had ended the lives of their less well-off countrymen. Mr. Fallows said that this ``mainly white, mainly well-educated'' class succeeded in transferring its sense of guilt onto those who served.
Consequently, Fallows argued, the class that stayed home did not hail returning veterans as heroes, but as individuals who had chosen to go to Vietnam to satisfy some perverse element in their own character.
``The reaction was, `Why did you go to Vietnam? Are you stupid? Are you a baby killer? Do you get off on killing people?''' recalls Webb. Concluded Fallows in the magazine article: ``Vietnam has left us with a heritage rich in possibilities for class warfare.''
Over time, Webb observes, what Fallows referred to as ``transferred guilt'' has been transferred back to those who stayed home. A number of conservative politicians who did not serve in Vietnam echo the sentiments of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, who had a student deferment during the war and now says that ``a big part of me'' wishes he had gone.
``It's ridiculous, unnecessary emotional baggage for people to feel guilty about having served in Vietnam,'' says Mr. Wheeler. ``But it's there anyway.''
One result, Webb argues, is that Vietnam service has become ``an affirmative element'' on r'esum'es - particularly those of politicians. ``It's not a sine qua non,'' says Webb, ``but it's not like it used to be where people would hide the fact of their Vietnam service altogether.''
Indeed, Wheeler notes that there are six Vietnam veterans among the 26 Vietnam-generation members of the Senate - twice the statistical average, he says. ``That could be three times [the average] after the next election,'' says Wheeler, particularly if such favored Vietnam veterans as Governor Kerrey and former Gov. Charles Robb win their Senate races in Nebraska and Virginia, respectively.
No one is suggesting that Vietnam service will become as essential for successful baby-boomer politicians as service in World War II was for an earlier generation. ``That's not the way it should be,'' says Mr. McCain. ``You've got to judge someone on the basis of their entire contribution, their whole record.''