Sunday, August 15, 1999

Where were you in '72?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Swarms of hovering pundit flies are buzzing around George W. Bush Jr., hoping to draw blood by asking if he ever snorted cocaine back in the Polyester Age, when he was an undomesticated party animal.

        Who cares if he Hoovered nose candy like a Dirt Devil with a V-8 engine? The question we should ask is: Have you been smoking crack lately? The man must be on some controlled substance or he would never run for president and submit his entire life to a white-glove inspection by a bunch of sanctimonious nitwits who majored in hypocrisy at the Larry King School of Journalism.

        So far, Mr. Bush stands accused of being a better man than his critics: He's successful in business, a devout Christian, he doesn't drink anymore and he attracts support like a cash magnet.

        Also, he served in the National Guard while most of us in the Me Generation were protesting the war, burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada or desperately hoping for a high lottery number.

        For the record, my magic number was 325. But it's nothing to brag about.

        Among 27 million men who were draft age from 1964 to 1973, 16 million of us — 60 percent — avoided military service. Some guys ate or starved their way to a 4-F deferment, some clung to college, some hid behind marriage and kids and some wore dresses and pantyhose to their induction physicals. Some of us just lucked out.

        Another group joined the Guard.

        According to Chance and Circumstance, a 1978 book about the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War: “At the end of 1968, with the draft still in full force, the Army National Guard had a waiting list of 100,000. After two years of shrinking draft calls, that waiting list vanished. Six months later, the Guard found itself 45,000 men under strength.”

        Anti-war protests also fizzled as the draft threat evaporated. “Stop the War” was just another way of saying “Stop the Draft.”

        The third group went to war. Most of the draftees were poor and minorities who lacked the resources and connections to avoid it. They died so that more privileged draft-avoiders could live to pontificate about “social justice.”

        These are not fun things to think about. The picture of the Vietnam era begins to look like a cold, harsh mug shot with numbers underneath: 58,000 killed, 270,000 wounded, 21,000 disabled.

        But if we're going to dig it out of our wallets for a campaign issue, let's compare the candidates. Mr. Bush served in the National Guard. Al Gore enlisted. I think he was the “senator's son” Creedence Clearwater sang about, the “fortunate one” who pulled a safe job behind the lines as a military journalist.

        Only one candidate can be proud of the way he answered the door when his country called: John McCain.

        His story, first told in The Nightingale's Song, has been republished in John McCain: An American Odyssey, both by Robert Timberg. It's probably the only book about a candidate that is worth reading longer than a cereal box.

        Mr. McCain, son of an admiral, Annapolis graduate, flew missions over Hanoi from a carrier, was shot down and spent 51/2 years in POW camps, 31 months of it in solitary.

        Both arms and his knee were broken when he ejected from his jet. He was given no medical attention but refused to “confess” his war crimes. His arms mended, and were broken again during brutal torture and beatings. When offered the chance to be released for propaganda purposes, to embarrass his father, he declined.

        When he finally left prison by the POW code of honor — last in last out — he was on crutches, crippled. He came home to a wife who had also been disabled by a drunk driver while he was in prison.

        But John McCain did not climb up on a water tower and start shooting. He didn't claim to be a victim. He didn't blame JFK, LBJ or Ho Chi Minh. He rebuilt his life, went into politics, divorced, remarried and now serves as U.S. Senator from Arizona, running for president.

        His inspiring story reveals a man of humor, honor, incredible courage, indomitable spirit and something our generation foolishly thought we didn't need: character.

        He would be a great president.

        That's not likely, but next time the pundits want to compare war stories, they should consider John McCain's comment on the 60 percent who avoided Vietnam:

        “God knows I've made enough mistakes in my life and did enough things wrong and continue to do enough things wrong without being a judge of others,” he says in American Odyssey. “They have to judge whether they conducted their lives in the best fashion, not me.”

        The answer is painfully obvious.

        Peter Bronson is associate editor of The Enquirer: