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Weighing service of Bush, Kerry

Vietnam casts its shadow

With his announcement that he is a "war president," George W. Bush has chosen to make his conduct of the Iraq war the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. This message has collided with John Kerry's emphasis on his combat service in Vietnam to create a perfect political storm that has brought renewed interest in what both men did during the Vietnam War.

 

I do not believe military service is a prerequisite for being president of the United States; leaders who have not worn the uniform have been excellent commanders in chief. The choices both men made during the 1960s have more in common than current political rhetoric would have us believe.

Bill Clinton is the most recent example of a president who did not serve in the military but made tough decisions as commander in chief. When, nine months into Clinton's first term, the United States lost soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, the president took full responsibility. He became more cautious about committing troops and subsequently decided against sending soldiers to Rwanda. He also hesitated in Bosnia, even when confronted by the opposition from a Republican House of Representative and public opinion. President Bush was also tested in his first year in office. With the attack on the World Trade Center, Bush decisively concluded that he had to strike at the heart of a religious-political movement by declaring war on its training centers in Afghanistan. His words inspired the nation and much of the world.

As to the choices made by Bush and Kerry in the late 1960s, these cannot be understood without examining what was going on during those terrible times. For young men then, the Selective Service Act, which set the terms and conditions of the draft, was driving the decisions of George W. Bush, John F. Kerry, and millions of other young men.

The most important common bond between Bush and Kerry is that both had the talent, resources, and/or influence to gain entrance into Yale University. Both were in the privileged minority who knew their moment of service would be deferred at least four years while they attended college. (The educated elites in both parties should use this unusual political moment -- when we are being asked to recall something that happened 35 years ago -- to remember how much different life was for those who did not go to college, let alone an Ivy League college.)

Both Kerry and Bush could have continued their deferments by choosing graduate school or using other, more subtle ways to keep themselves safe. Neither did. John Kerry chose to join a branch of the Navy that could only take him to Vietnam. George Bush chose the Texas National Guard, where he trained as a fighter pilot.

That Bush had help getting into the Texas National Guard or was less than diligent about attending all of the required meetings or needed a little help to exit the Guard early so he could attend Harvard Business School does not place him out of the ordinary for men in 1968. This was a time when the date of your graduation could make the difference between life and death.

A lot happened between 1966, when John Kerry graduated from college and made his choices, and 1968, when George Bush graduated and made his. They are two completely different moments. Still, one simple fact remains: John Kerry was the Yale graduate who chose to go to Vietnam.

In 1966, the Vietnam War had not yet become unpopular and the probability of a US defeat was never considered. By 1968, the country was coming apart. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and riots broke out in most of our major cities. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, and hope seemed to drain even from those who disagreed with him. President Johnson announced in March that he would not run for reelection and that he would spend the rest of his term trying to negotiate a peace agreement with North Vietnam. Both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms called for expeditious withdrawal from Vietnam. To choose to go to Vietnam in 1968 was to go to a war that was increasingly unpopular and futile.

As to the question of whom we should trust to be our commander in chief, I would pay much more attention to what these men did after Vietnam. It was President Bush, not his younger self, who took the advice of political advisers and decided not to attend the funeral of a single man or woman killed in Iraq. I, for one, thank God that Karl Rove wasn't advising Abraham Lincoln, or else President Lincoln might never have gone to Gettysburg.

I would also pay more attention to Senator Kerry's work with the first President Bush, when in 1991 and 1992 they supported the use of diplomacy to end the war in Cambodia and to construct a roadmap towards normalization with Vietnam. Both of these men, along with Senator John McCain, were bitterly condemned for making peace. It was one of those rare and wonderful bipartisan acts that transcended politics. It is a story that could inspire us to believe that public service is worth it after all.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University in New York City. He served in the US Navy from 1966-69 and in Vietnam for two months in 1969.

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