St. Petersburg Times Online: Opinion

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Military service is fading as a campaign issue

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 11, 1999

In past elections, Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton were under fire for months about Vietnam and the draft and how they avoided both.

But when questions were raised a week ago about how George W. Bush wound up as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, the issue came and went as quickly as a late-afternoon thunderstorm.

Without the thunder.

On Tuesday, the first day back to work after the holiday weekend, the Bush campaign received just two calls from the media about the Republican's military background. Campaign spokesman David Beckwith said one came from an editorial writer at a newspaper that wanted to defend Bush. The other came from Salon, the hip online magazine with an attitude. Tuesday evening, none of the major television networks mentioned the story on their nightly news.

There are several reasons for the collective shrug.

Bush's efforts to get into the Air National Guard do not compare to Clinton's determination to dodge the draft and dodge questions on the subject after he became a candidate for president in 1991.

It took the better part of a year, but Clinton's initial claims that he gave up an ROTC deferment in 1969 to stand for the draft and that he always supported the military eventually proved to be less than truthful.

First there was that letter Clinton wrote as a college student where he declared he "loathed the military." Then he wrote to the ROTC director at the University of Arkansas, thanking him for "saving me from the draft," admitting he misled him about protests he organized, and claiming he didn't want to resist the draft so he could "maintain my political viability within the system." Then it came out that Clinton already had been called once before he sought a deferment by signing up for ROTC.

Finally, Clinton was forced to acknowledge he sought advice from a powerful senator's office about avoiding the draft and that his uncle also lobbied on his behalf.

Nothing the Los Angeles Times or the Dallas Morning News reported about Bush's admission into the Guard comes close to the lobbying on Clinton's behalf. There also is nothing to indicate Bush has misrepresented his intentions or his record in ways that Clinton did in 1992.

Quayle is a closer parallel.

The son of a prominent, wealthy Indiana family benefited from his last name and a few well-placed phone calls in 1969 to get a spot in the National Guard while attending law school. But even Quayle pulled more strings than Bush apparently did.

Before graduating from Yale University in 1968, Bush walked into an Air National Guard commander's office in Houston and said he wanted to fly. Thousands of other young men who hoped to avoid Vietnam also sought to join the Guard to fulfill their military obligation while minimizing their chances of getting killed.

Of course, Bush had an edge. The commander in Houston knew his father was a member of Congress at the time.

The Los Angeles Times concluded Bush "received favorable treatment and uncommon attention" but found no indication that regulations were broken. What the newspaper did report is that the Guard did not seem all that hard up for pilots when Bush became one, that he became a commissioned officer despite lacking some specific qualifications and that he was allowed to transfer to the Alabama National Guard for three months while working on a campaign there.

Did Bush's last name help him? Obviously, just as it did in the oil business and in buying a small share of a baseball team -- and in running for president. Plenty of Vietnam veterans would like to have had the same advantages, and many other young men used whatever influence their families had to secure a spot in the Guard.

But the newspapers turned up no evidence of the hypocrisy that marked Clinton's case or the lobbying that characterized Quayle's. Perhaps even more revealing about the accounts is the way the Bush camp addressed the questions. Bush was well-prepared for the issue, and there are no indications so far that he has shaded the truth.

In a broader sense, this may mark the end of an era in which the type and length of military service was a litmus test for candidates for president.

There are no World War II veterans in this campaign, no George Bush or Bob Dole to recall serving in a war that America fully embraced and that baby boomers are too young to remember. Clinton's election also demonstrated that voters do not believe military service is a requirement to be the nation's commander in chief.

Military service is not even a good indicator of when and how a president will use force; Clinton has sent troops around the world even in the face of considerable opposition at home.

Which of the current crop of candidates can make an issue of Bush's service in the Guard?

Not Quayle.

Not Lamar Alexander, who received draft deferments while he was in college and law school and was never inducted.

Not Vice President Al Gore, who noted in his announcement speech that he served in Vietnam but forgot to mention he was a military journalist.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who spent more than five years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war, could raise some questions. Even before the articles about Bush appeared, he joked that he felt secure as a prisoner of war knowing Bush was protecting Texas from invasion. But McCain is not the type to exploit his military heroism, even if his campaign Web site features video clips that detail it.

Exploring Bush's military record is a legitimate news story. It should be scrutinized along with his business background and record as governor, just as the backgrounds of other candidates for president and other high offices are examined.

But as a campaign issue, who did what during the Vietnam war is fading fast.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.