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The politics of medals and other such things.


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William F. Buckley Jr.

One after another came in over the radio on the subject of Senator Kerry and his medals, and then we heard the blessed voice of Senator John McCain. He pleaded that the whole controversy should be dropped. What we need, he said, is bipartisan action on what to do now in Iraq. Senator Kerry has agreed that we can’t just bail out, and of course that is the position of the president. So why don’t the two sides get together on a common strategy? “The other stuff is just politics,” McCain said.

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Well yes, it is just politics, but politics has its place in the evolution of national deliberations on who should be the next president of the United States. “Politics,” as practiced in this controversy, has to do with the question of the character and credibility of candidates, incumbents and challengers.

It’s time to examine the candidate who, thirty-five years ago, did not serve in the Vietnam War. We need to remind ourselves that that war did not call for participation by all able-bodied Americans aged 18-25. This was not a war in which 16 million people served, as they did — as we did — in the Second World War. Yes, there were volunteers, and John Kerry, however much he later regretted it, was one of those volunteers and fought gallantly. But to have fought gallantly once engaged does not give you a warrant to condemn those who didn’t serve. That includes men who dived into graduate studies to get an exemption, men who gratefully learned from their doctors that they had a lurking medical disability, men who drew the “lucky” numbers in the pool. If your number was X or higher, that meant you wouldn’t be called, and getting X or higher was reason for an extra beer that night.

We have a volunteer army at this point, and it should be so until we come upon a national challenge that can’t be met using only volunteers. Then we get the draft. During the Civil War, it was perfectly respectable to exercise the option to buy yourself (for $300) exemption from the draft. That went on until the needs of the union ended that form of exemption, but it was never suggested that to have taken advantage of it was unpatriotic. When Dick Cheney’s turn came up, he said he had “other priorities,” all of them legal. But to have exercised other priorities is being held now, by the Democratic Shrumguard, to have been less than honorable.

The Republican fusillade focuses on what is believed by an increasing number of people, namely that John Kerry has given confusing accounts of his own actions, of his appraisal of the military arm of government, and of his sentiments on the Iraq war. Columnist Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe records that, Yes, Kerry did say in 1971 that he had thrown away his medals, as a gesture “for peace and justice.” In November of that year he said he had decided to “renounce the symbols which this country gives” to its soldiers at war. In 1984, however, running for office against a World War II Air Force veteran, he said those weren’t his own medals he threw away, they were those of another veteran, tossed “at his request.” In 1986 he said they weren’t actually medals, they were ribbons. At this point he got a little feisty, telling one interviewer: “They’re my medals. I can do goddam what I want with them.” On the recent TV show he tried to square a circle, which not even Einstein could do. Having distinguished between throwing away ribbons (okay) and medals (not okay) he said that “ribbons, medals, were absolutely interchangeable.” He should have had better options than to say that.

But it is presumably impossible for the Democratic organization to dump Kerry and look around for someone more straightforward. The question then becomes: Is it wrong for the Republican reelection campaign to continue to bring up the metal/ribbon/did/didn’t business? In yesterday’s paper four possible vice presidential candidates were named. The story said they were being “vetted.” That means they were being looked over to discover whether there was anything in their background which would play into the political slicing machine. Did they throw away/not throw away their medals? Vote for/vote against the Iraq war? If anything questionable is found, does that mean Senator Kerry would look for a running mate less vulnerable?



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