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Clinton's draft-dodging matters

When did we baby boomers put Vietnam behind us?

Some of us may have done so the moment we were safe from the draft, some the day Saigon fell, some in the private moment we finally made peace with our parents and some not until Desert Storm. But many veterans like myself put it behind us the day we marched in the belated parade for the opening of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982.

I was an Illinois boy, but by chance had been posted with the New Hampshire National Guard (yes, some Guard units did get sent over), and proudly marched with the Granite State group. Bystanders cheered us and I wanted to bawl. I wish now I had. But it put Vietnam behind me _ until Bill Clinton asked for my vote.

Much of the press wants to pardon Clinton since what he did to avoid the draft was accepted practice among his generation. But the moral philosophy behind that brief is not credible. Clinton's letter makes clear that he knew precisely what he was doing. He wanted to have it both ways: to make no sacrifice and pay no future price. But actions have consequences and their price must be paid, as we fortysomethings are now finding out.

Are we all unfit for public office because we smoked pot in law school, dodged the draft or slept around? Perhaps we are: The voters decide. Is that fair? Perhaps not: As Aristotle wrote, the goal of the political life, which is honor, "depends more on those who confer it than on him upon whom it is conferred."

Certainly we are all growing tired of political contests being decided by revelations of past peccadilloes. But the Vietnam issue is different from that of, for instance, adultery. The man who cheats on his wife may ruin his personal life, but may still make a great civic leader. The man who dodges the draft cheats on us all, on the republic Clinton aspires to govern.

The point is not that he protested the war _ the war was a folly, in means if not motives. The point is not that civil disobedience is wrong _ it often reflects a higher patriotism. The point is that Clinton arranged matters so to "avoid both Vietnam and the resistance."

We all faced a terrible choice. But those who joined the service made the choice and sacrificed for our country. Draft resisters who went into jail or exile likewise made the choice and sacrificed for their convictions. But those privileged children who faked a "calling" to exempted professions or got daddy's doctor or lawyer to pull strings or defrauded the draft board ducked the choice, spurned all sacrifice and put honor last on their list of priorities.

The issue is ultimately one of authority. Clinton's letter to Col. Eugene Holmes, as cynical a document as I've read in some time, rejected all authority until such time as he decided America's government had ceased to be "dangerous and inadequate."

At the same time he plotted to advance his career so that someday America must bow to his authority. But according to his own logic, we citizens today would have no more obligation to respect the authority of a Clinton administration than he showed our government then.

"If we did for ourselves what we do for our country, what rascals we would be," wrote the Italian statesman Cavour. He was meditating on the truth that a leader must often violate the ethics that guide one's personal life in the higher interest of public service.

Clinton did the opposite: He violated the ethic of public service out of the "higher interest" of himself alone. Perhaps it will win him the Libertarian vote. But if that is my generation's notion of honor, then we're not worthy to govern after all.

Walter A. McDougall, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning . . . The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age.