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Vietnam No Longer Contentious Issue in Our Politics

By David Shribman

Have a kind of empty feeling? Sense that something has been missing these last couple of months? Me, too. Campaign 2008 is completing its fifth month, and we haven't had a vicious fight about the Vietnam War yet.

Vietnam is the only war in American history never to end. The War of 1812 was contentious, especially in the Northeast, but no presidential election was fought over it beyond 1812. The Mexican War stirred great passions and slopped over into the 1848 election but has hardly been heard of since, except if you are taking a course in 19th-century America. World War I was debated in 1916 (mostly as a question of how to keep the nation out of it) and in 1920 (mostly as a question of how to return to normalcy after the war), but its impact on American elections was basically nil.

Not Vietnam. It's been a major theme in six American elections -- a remarkable feat when you consider that not one person who fought the Vietnam War ever has been elected president. Compare that with World War II, which touched seven American presidents (nine, if you count Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman) but which was an issue in at most one election, the contest in 1944, and even then it was not a major point of contention, as Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the GOP nominee, didn't substantially question FDR's prosecution of the war.

The question for 2008 is whether America can finally bring the Vietnam War to an end. It has looked that way so far this year. The Democrats conducted 21 presidential debates and hardly a peep was heard about Vietnam. Not only that, hardly a disparaging word was heard about the 1960s, another hardy perennial in American politics.

It helped that one of the leading candidates, Sen. Barack Obama, was born in the first year of the Kennedy administration and was only 6 during the Tet offensive. No one questioned what he did during the war. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't eligible for the draft, so she couldn't have dodged it even if she had wanted to.

Now, as we brace for a confrontation that is likely to be between Mr. Obama and Sen. John S. McCain, there will be little contention over Vietnam. As a Naval airman in the war, Mr. McCain was shot down over North Vietnam and endured five years of brutal imprisonment in Hanoi, making him one of the bona fide heroes of the war and shaping his life after his release. No one will question Mr. McCain's service in Vietnam, and even Democrats acknowledge that it provides him with an aura that no New Frontier baby can match.

But the passing of Vietnam from our presidential politics at the same time that a Vietnam veteran might occupy the Oval Office is a curious development.

Americans throughout history have elected military men to the presidency, beginning of course with George Washington. The Civil War provided six presidents, all of them volunteers: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.

Despite the presence of so many veterans in the presidential politics of the 19th century, political candidates confined the waving of the bloody shirt -- political shorthand, popularized by James B. Weaver and Horace Greeley, for reminding voters of the Democrats' identification with the Confederacy during the Civil War -- to the elections of 1868, 1872 and 1876, petering out in 1880.

George H.W. Bush was the last of the World War II presidents, but so prominent a part of the political landscape were those war veterans that both major-party candidates in 1960, 1964 and 1972 were veterans. (Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, tried repeatedly to enlist in the war but was rejected because of a hernia.) For 11 consecutive elections, from 1952 to 1996, at least one of the major-party nominees had served in World War II.

If Mr. McCain, as expected, is nominated for president by the Republicans late this summer, he will be the third Vietnam veteran to run in a general election; the first two, former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, both Democrats, were defeated by George W. Bush, who did not serve in Vietnam. The other baby-boom president, Bill Clinton, maneuvered to avoid the draft.

Vietnam was a long war -- most accounts put its length at about 16 years, from 1959 to 1975 -- but the controversy over it has lasted even longer, which is perhaps why Vietnam veterans have been unable to win the presidency.

"It is not a good story," says Thomas J. Vallely, who directs the Vietnam Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and who counts himself a friend of Mr. McCain's. "In World War II, America is triumphant. In Vietnam, America gets to know itself, and in some ways Vietnam is helpful to America because it focuses so many questions that are important. But its veterans are complicated people, and America sometimes doesn't go for complicated people."

All of which may explain the rise of McCain, who has had a complicated life but who seems to live life as an uncomplicated man. He sees things in blacks and whites, and approaches life as a choice between rights and wrongs. It is wrong, he already has signaled, to beat up on Mr. Obama about his preacher or to suggest that the Illinois Democrat is somehow un-American because his middle name is Hussein or he doesn't customarily wear a flag pin in his lapel.

The Vietnam War will be an issue in the 2008 general election only to the extent that McCain's travails during that episode in American life provide insights into the Arizona Republican's character -- and because it is impossible to separate the man McCain has become from the war that molded him. We may debate his positions on the issues this fall, but we almost certainly will not debate the Vietnam War. Maybe that means the war finally has ended.

Copyright 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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