By Richard S. Dunham Twelve years ago, a wise politician declared that "we do not need to divide America over who served and how.... Are we now going to create a new scarlet letter in the context of Vietnam?" That elected official was John Kerry. The context of his comment was the 1992 election controversy over Bill Clinton's attempts to avoid service in the unpopular and bloody Indochinese conflict.
In today's political world, Kerry's comments, unearthed recently by Columbus Dispatch reporter Jack Torry, carry plenty of irony. Now, Democrats, rather than Republicans, are declaring themselves outraged by a young American (George Bush) who stayed at home during a war that ultimately killed more than 50,000 U.S. citizens and many times that number of Vietnamese. And Republicans, rather than Democrats, are denouncing the attackers as political opportunists and hysterical hypocrites.
Like many Americans, I agree with the defenders of Bush (now) and Clinton (then). As Kerry so aptly put it when the issue was on Clinton's doorstep, the critics are "latter-day Spiro Agnews" who are playing "to the worst instincts of divisiveness and reaction that still haunt America."
HYSTERICAL HYPERBOLE. It was reckless for Academy Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore to accuse Bush of "desertion" because of gaps in his National Guard service record, when the son of the then-U.N. ambassador was working on a Republican Senate campaign in Alabama. It was shameful when retired General Wesley Clark, then a Presidential candidate, declined to disavow comments by Moore, a Clark supporter. And it was hysterical hyperbole when Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe charged that Bush had gone AWOL. No facts back up the Democratic boss's McCarthyesque charge.
McAuliffe may have achieved his purpose. The news media focused determinedly on Bush's inability to verify his 1972 whereabouts. The White House's stumbling response to the press frenzy only made the story bigger -- at least for a few days. McAuliffe can proudly declare, "Mission Accomplished."
But just because the gambit paid off for McAuliffe, at least in the short run, doesn't mean it was right. His charge was the equivalent of Joe McCarthy's infamous phantom list of supposed communists in the State Dept. Guilty until proven innocent.
"THE COMRADE APPEARS." Back to Kerry. The Democratic front-runner has also become a target of the modern-day McCarthyites -- using the Internet. Doctored Vietnam-era photos have shown up in cyberspace, in an attempt to discredit the decorated Navy lieutenant as an unpatriotic antiwar radical. One particularly odious example: A photo of Kerry at a congressional hearing was altered to insert a Viet Cong flag in the background. Another picture conveniently added radical actress Jane Fonda (hated by pro-war forces as "Hanoi Jane") to an otherwise routine photo of young Kerry.
It reminds me of a terrific exhibit at the Newseum a couple of years ago called "The Commissar Vanishes." In that exhibit, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin excised the images of communist functionaries as he had them executed or exiled. History was altered to suit the political needs of the day. This anti-Kerry conspiracy could be called, "The Comrade Appears."
Those of us baby boomers who came to political consciousness during Vietnam -- including this correspondent, who was a bit too young to face the dilemma of Bush and Clinton -- still are deeply affected by the conflict that poisoned a generation of public discourse. Younger voters don't understand what all the fuss is about. "Ancient history," some of them declare. "Get over it."
NO-WIN DECISIONS. That's good advice. Democrats and Republicans alike should try to get over it. Most voters have. According to a Feb. 18-19 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, 79% of Americans say Bush's National Guard experience will make no difference in their voting decision. Three-fourths of voters said the same thing about Kerry's Vietnam experience.
Just 21% of voters -- almost all Republicans -- said Kerry's activism in Vietnam Veterans Against the War would make them less likely to support him, while 14% said they'd be more liable to cast a vote for him because he became a protester. The overwhelming majority, once again, couldn't care less.
Bush, Clinton, and Kerry all faced no-win decisions over service in Vietnam. Kerry went to Southeast Asia and has medals to show for it. Bush protected the Texas coast from the Vietnamese, as Arizona GOP Senator John McCain put it in a 2000 campaign jest. Bush has an honorable discharge to show for his service.
WHO CARED? Clinton successfully escaped the draft, like thousands of others, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. All of them maintained their political viability without ever putting on a uniform. Few voters ever cared.
America faces serious issues that need discussing in 2004: jobs, tax policy, spending priorities, record deficits, health-care costs, terrorism, and the nation's role in the world, to name just a few. Vietnam, rest in peace. Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington-based chief political correspondent. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online