THE "Vietnam generation" has begun to play a major role in American presidential politics. These are the men who, between about 1965 and 1972, were eligible to be called to service in Vietnam and either did serve or did not do so for a number of reasons. Now in their mid- to late 40s, members of this group are starting to seek the highest offices in the land.
As in the decades after the Civil War and World War II, "Candidate, what did you do in the war?" will be asked of many aspirants to national office in the next few presidential campaigns.
In the second straight campaign cycle, an office-seeker is having to answer embarrassing questions about his Vietnam-era military service. In 1988 the press grilled Dan Quayle about his service in the Indiana National Guard, especially about rumors (never substantiated) that he pulled strings to get into the unit and thereby duck the draft.
Now Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton is trying to fend off allegations that he swivel-hipped around his draft board in 1969 until a high number in the new draft lottery eliminated the risk of conscription. Like Quayle, Clinton has denied that he acted improperly.
As divisive as the Vietnam war was and still is, it's unlikely that voters will expect Audie Murphy or PT-109 credentials from Vietnam-generation candidates. Sen. Bob Kerrey deserves great respect for the Vietnam heroism that won him the Medal of Honor. But that record so far hasn't done much to ignite his presidential bid, nor, by itself, should it.
Voters this year and in campaigns ahead are likely to accept as legitimate a range of wartime experiences by candidates. Men who served in the military, whether as enlistees or draftees, whether in Vietnam or elsewhere, will be accepted. Those who performed an alternative form of service, like the Peace Corps or work in a veterans' hospital, deserve support. Also deserving of voter approval will be those who opposed the war and struggled to end what they saw as America's disastrous involvement.
What probably won't be, and shouldn't be, acceptable to voters will be wartime conduct that suggests self-preservation and convenience over principle: the sojourn in Canada, the deferment for a questionable physical condition, the sudden discovery of conscientious-objector scruples, or other draft-evading steps.
The question for Vietnam-generation candidates should not be, "What did you do in the war?," but rather, "How did you acquit yourself?" The test voters will impose won't be for narrowly defined patriotism, but for sincerity, integrity, and moral courage - in short, for character.