Front-Man

by Hendrik Hertzberg | September 12, 1989

The Bush-Quayle ticket is a powerful symbol of the moral decline of the American ruling class. Con- sider the response of each half of this generationally balanced ticket to its generation's war. In 1941 George Herbert Walker Bush, scion of a rich and politically influential family, was a 17-year-old senior at a prestigious New England prep school, A secure and idyllic childhood, spent in the bosky suburban towns of Milton, Massachusetts, and Greenwich, Connecticut, and in summerhouses and sailboats on the Maine coast, was behind him. A n equally secure future beckoned, first at Yale and afterward in some appropriate branch of business. Then his country called—but let Bush (and Vic Gold) take up the story, as told in Bush's autobiography, Looking Forward:

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, there wasn't any doubt about which branch of the service I'd join. My thoughts immediately turned to naval aviation. College was coming up the following fall, but that would have to wait. The sooner I could enlist, the better.

Six months later I got my diploma from Phillips Academy Andover, Secretary of War Henry Stimson came from Washington to deliver the commencement address. He told members of our graduating class the war would be a long one, and even though America needed fighting men, we'd serve our country better by getting more education before getting into uniform.

After the ceremony, in a crowded hallway outside the auditorium, my father had one last question about my future plans... "George," he said, "did the secretary say anything to change your mind?"

"No, sir," I replied, "I'm going in,"

Dad nodded and shook my hand.

In that exchange, so long ago, between Prescott and George Bush, there is real nobility; it is a perfect expression of the upper-class ethos at its tight-lipped, firmjawed best. These were not people brought up to talk endlessly, or at all, about their "feelings," A nod and a handshake were more than sufficient to convey the father's pride in the son. With that handshake the boy became a man; and the man went on, as the world knows, to become the youngest aviator in the Navy, flying 58 combat missions off the pitching decks of aircraft carriers, getting shot down in his TBM Avenger and rescued at sea by an American submarine, and coming home with the Distinguished Flying Cross on his chest. He need not have left home at all. A word from Prescott Bush to Secretary Stimson or some other highly placed acquaintance, and George might have had a comfortable billet in the Pentagon or as an adjutant on some general's staff behind the lines. But that was not his way, or the way of his class. "War," writes Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. in Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class, "is the ultimate in the series of ordeals, beginning at boarding school, going on through the trial by nature, through which the Old Rich discover their personal powers and enter at last into the line of descent and succession that marks their place in time." George Bush entered into that line, and it would take him to the threshold of the White House.

Now flash forward to 1969. J. Danforth Quayle, scion of a rich and politically influential family, has a problem. Like millions of others, he has held off the draft for four years with a Selective Service rating of 2-S— a student deferment. But now he has graduated, from DePauw University, and because his grades weren't so good it's going to take some doing to get him into law school. Meanwhile, he has had his physical examination, the last step before the machinery of Selective Service will grind out his induction notice. He applies for a spot in the National Guard, as the state militia is called, but the de- mand for places is so great that he will have long since been drafted if he waits his turn. Fortunately, a senior employee at one of the family's newspapers is a retired major general in the Guard. Telephone calls are made. A spot is found. Quayle is inconvenienced: he has to spend six months in training, and for five-and-a-half years after that he has to spend one weekend each month and two weeks each summer at meetings. But he is out of danger. The 120th Public Information Detachment of the Indiana National Guard is not a hell-for-leather outfit, and anyway the chances that it or any other unit of the militia will be activated for duty in Vietnam are close to zero. On paper Quayle "served his country," as we have been told so often in recent days; in reality he served himself.

So did a lot of other people, of course. On the exquisitely calibrated moral scale of that period, Quayle fell somewhere in the middle. The aristocrats were the fighters and the resisters—those who volunteered for combat duty and sometimes lost their lives in the war, and those who chose to go to prison to demonstrate their opposition to it. In the second rank were the draftees and the COs—those who accepted induction and obeyed orders, even if that meant going into combat (which in the majority of cases it did not), and those who, in obedience to religious conscience, did alternative service in hospitals or nursing homes. In the third rank were the joiners and the exiles—those who, like Quayle, signed up with some branch of the service in a way that guaranteed they could discharge their military obligation without incurring physical risk, and those who moved to Canada or Sweden, placing themselves beyond the reach of army or j ail but sacrificing home, and sometimes career and relations with friends and family, in the process. The fourth rank were the evaders—those who arranged their lives to correspond with one of the categories exempt from the draft. (Graduate school, marriage with children, and civilian defense work were the most common ploys.) Bringing up the rear were those who faked or exaggerated physical or mental infirmities with enough success to obtain 1-Y status (a temporary medical deferment) or, best of all, the coveted 4-F. Only those in this final category truly deserved the name of draft dodger. Outside this scheme of moral ranking were the genuine 4-F's with true medical disabilities.

I'm not running for vice president, but since I'm judging people who are, full disclosure is in order. By the end of 19661 had held off Uncle Sam for five years, first by going to college and then by working for the National Student Association, which was mysteriously able to shelter its staff from the draft. (The mystery was cleared up in 1967, when it was disclosed that the CIA, which was secretly funding the NSA, would simply request one's file from one's local draft board and sit on it.) I'd quit NSA to work for Newsweek, my draft status was 1-A, and certain induction was only weeks away. I was too straight to malinger and too glad to be out of school to want to go back; and I doubted that my opposition to the Vietnam War was single-minded enough to sustain me through a jail term. So I joined the Navy for a three-year hitch. After Officer Candidate School I requested assignment to Vietnam (where I would have been in no great danger—my specialty, like Quayle's, was "public information"), but with typical military logic I was given a desk job in Manhattan.

After a year and a half in the passionately anti-war atmosphere of Greenwich Village, I decided I was a conscientious objector after all and applied for discharge as such. My application was long (25,000 words) and earnest, containing what I considered an ingenious and convincing plan for the nonviolent national defense of the United States. My commanding officer. Vice Admiral Andrew Jackson, was sympathetic, but the Navy Department wasn't buying. Instead of a discharge they sent me my long-deferred orders to Vietnam. I politely announced my intention to disobey, and looked forward to a court-martial and fame as an anti-war hero. It was not to be. A friend from the office who was a former guard at Portsmouth Naval Prison, where I was expecting to finish out my military career, strongly advised me to have any pending dental work done before rather than during my stay at Portsmouth. (He cautioned that the prison dentists' sole remedy, no matter what the complaint, was extraction.) I followed this advice, bled more spectacularly from the procedure than I should have, was found to have a mild clotting factor deficiency, and was returned, with breathtaking speed, to civilian life. In sum, I was an evader turned joiner turned CO whose ambition to be a resister was frustrated by the fact that he'd been 4-F from day one. How one served or didn't was not the only variable in the moral calculus of the time. There was also where one stood on the war, and how one's actions comported with one's words. Many a draft evader or dodger partially redeemed himself by participating in the movement to end the war, sometimes running real risks (though of course of a much lower order than the risks to which combat troops exposed themselves) in the process. Such men also "served their country," The Quayle, however, was one of the most irritating species in the aviary, the "chicken hawk" who cawed loudly in support of the war while fluttering far from the theater of combat. The anti-war equivalent was the saber-toothed dove, the draft dodger who jeered at soldiers and sailors, (Strolling in uniform around Sheridan or Harvard Square, I was often the object of unsolicited abuse from birds of this type. My policy was to inquire about the Selective Service status of my tormentor. If the answer was 1-A, or the person was out on bail for draft resistance, I'd nod or try to engage him in conversation. If the answer was 2-S or 1-Y, I'd tell the son of a bitch to fuck off,)

In the hours following his selection as Bush's running mate, Quayle all but acknowledged the moral ambiguity of his position, saying he chose as he did because he wanted to go to law school and get on with his career, and adding, with coarse candor, that "I did not know in 1969 that I would be in this room today, I'll confess," By the time he gave his acceptance speech (in which he identified the Republican themes as "Freedom, Family, and Future"—a fourth F and he wouldn't have had to join the Guard), the line had changed. Now he was "proud" of what he did.Quayle's problem is that he has no really good answer to the questions that are being raised. But both he and the country would be better off if he would say something like, "The choice I made 20 years ago was not a dishonor- able one, but I'm not especially proud of it either. It takes nothing away from the respect and gratitude we owe to those who fought and died to say that it was a wrenching time for all Americans, and particularly for young men of my generation. I've learned a lot since then, and our coun- try has come a long way toward healing the wounds of that terrible time. I want that healing to continue. I hope that in the end this controversy will help that process along, not retard it." Of course, that's a bit long for a ten-second sound bite, and in any case the Republicans have chosen another route: demagogic, defensive anger. Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George Bush said of Quayle, "He did not go to Canada, he did not burn his draft card, and he damn sure didn't burn the American flag." More's the pity; those who did do such things, twisted, bitter, and self-defeating though their actions sometimes (not always) were, at least acted from motives higher than individual convenience. Quayle made a separate peace; now Bush proposes to refight the war. Aux armes, citoyens.

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