Who could have predicted that the presidential election of '04 would turn on what happened in a war we fought 40 years ago? The two aging boomers who are the focus of the debate we all thought had been stuffed down the nation's memory hole are two of the oddest fellows to deliver the issue into the 21st century.
Partisans are eager only to reprise the clich?that polarized those days of rage. Neither of the candidates appear to have bought the pop culture mantra of those days of yore: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
George Bush admits to being young and irresponsible in that time when a lot of us were young and irresponsible, and cheerfully concedes that his participation in the Air National Guard, good and honorable though it was, is not the stuff of heroism.
Like many other boomers who (like Al Gore, for example) wangled positions behind desks or on bases far from the sound of the guns, he escaped hellish duty. But he did duty. (Many National Guardsmen were, in fact, called to Vietnam; there has never been a suggestion that the young Bush would have avoided Vietnam if he had been ordered to go there.)
John Kerry took another route. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He casts aspersions on George Bush's National Guard service and Dick Cheney's student deferments. However, it's not necessarily clear where, or if, he would have enlisted had he had been granted the student deferment he sought to study in Paris.
The London Daily Telegraph dug up an interview with young Kerry in the Harvard Crimson in 1970: "When (Kerry) approached his draft board for permission to study for a year in Paris, the draft board refused and Kerry decided to enlist in the Navy."
This fact - and the Kerry campaign has not denied it - would be of little consequence if the candidate were not so smug about "reporting for duty." This actually humanizes the man, showing him to have had the urges in his senior year in college that have compelled young men in all our wars to find the best duty available.
Once he chose to make Vietnam heroics the central focus of his campaign, he eliminated this option to show that honest side of himself. If he preferred nibbling croissants in a sidewalk caf?n the Champs-Elysees to supping on nuoc nam from a sidewalk cart on the rue Catinat in Saigon, we could understand. Who wouldn't? But like so much else in Kerry's biography, this fact is erased from his past because he thinks it doesn't work for him.