Where Is The Shame?

By BOB HERBERT

The New York Times

August 27, 2004

Max Cleland, minus the three limbs he lost in Vietnam, showed up in his wheelchair outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Wednesday to suggest that the president take the simple and decent step of condemning the slime that is being spread by Bush supporters against the war record of John Kerry.

He didn't get very far. The president was busy vacationing and had neither the time nor the inclination to meet with Mr. Cleland, a former U.S. senator who was himself the target of vicious, unconscionable attacks by the G.O.P. slime machine when he ran for re-election in Georgia in 2002.

Later, at a press conference under the hot Crawford sun, Mr. Cleland told reporters: "The question is, where is George Bush's honor? Where is his shame?"

Mr. Cleland reminded reporters of the scurrilous attacks by Bush forces against Senator John McCain in the Republican presidential primary in 2000 and said: "Keep in mind, this president has gone after three Vietnam veterans in four years. That's got to stop."

In what is surely the most important election of the last half-century, we seem trapped in the politics of the madhouse. What is incredible is that these attacks on men who served not just honorably, but heroically, are coming from a hawkish party that is controlled by an astonishing number of men who sprinted as far from the front lines as they could when they were of fighting age and their country was at war.

Among them:

Mr. Bush himself, the nation's commander in chief and the biggest hawk of all. He revels in the accouterments of combat. The story was somewhat different when he was 22 years old and eligible for combat himself. He managed to get into the cushy confines of the Texas Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 - a year in which more than a half-million American troops were in the war zone and more than 14,000 were killed.

The story gets murky after that. We know the future president breezed off at some point to work on a political campaign in Alabama, skipped a required flight physical in 1972 and was suspended from flying. He supported the war in Vietnam but was never in any danger of being sent there.

Vice President Dick Cheney, another fierce administration hawk. Mr. Cheney asked for and received five deferments when he was eligible for the draft. He told senators at a confirmation hearing in 1989, "I had other priorities in the 60's than military service." Many draft-age Americans had similar priorities - getting an education, getting married and starting a family.

Attorney General John Ashcroft. He is reported to have said, "I would have served, if asked." But with the war raging in Vietnam, he received six student deferments and an "occupational deferment" based on the essential nature of a civilian job at Southwest Missouri State University - teaching business law to undergraduates.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary and a fanatical hawk on Iraq. He was not fanatical about Vietnam and escaped the draft with student deferments.

There are many others.

I would like to see at least some of these men, in keeping with their positions as leaders of a great nation, stand up and say it is wrong - just wrong - to try and reap a cheap political gain by defacing the sacrifices of individuals like John Kerry, John McCain and Max Cleland, who put themselves in mortal danger in the service of their country.

It's one thing to decline to serve. It's quite another to throw mud at those who did serve - or to remain silent as allies hurl the mud.

I've interviewed several soldiers and marines who have suffered grave wounds in Iraq, including the loss of limbs. A permanent place of honor should be reserved for them in the pantheon of American heroes. The idea that someone some years from now may trash their service for political gain is beyond disgusting.

George W. Bush ought to call off his dogs. The one thing we ought to be able to do in this hyperpoliticized era is rally in a bipartisan way behind those who have been willing to fight our wars.

The privileged classes no longer feel an obligation to put their lives - or their children's lives - on the line in defense of the nation. The very least they could do is insist that those who have put themselves in harm's way be treated with respect.