- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Didn’t we already fight the battle over the National Guard? It was 1988 and Dan Quayle had just been selected by presidential nominee George H.W. Bush as his running mate. At a news conference in New Orleans, Mr. Quayle was asked about his military service in the National Guard by ABC reporter Susan King. Mr. Quayle made what reporters thought was a suspect defense of his motives for joining the Guard. The media accused Mr. Quayle of joining the Guard to avoid service in Vietnam.

Some journalists of a certain age wrote stories of what they did (or didn’t do) during that period. Many of the assertions about President Bush’s Guard service — and his motivation for joining the Guard — were made against Mr. Quayle in 1988. They not only included people’s motives for joining the Guard, but stories about those who avoided service through student deferments, high draft lottery numbers or string-pulling.

Could we please get back to issues, which are far more important than who did what and where they did it more than 30 years ago? Does it matter now that John Kerry and Jane Fonda attended an anti-war rally and that a picture circulated on the Internet and subsequently in many newspapers? I have a picture of Jane Fonda and me together (though not at an anti-war rally). I also have pictures of me with Ted Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Norman Lear and Rep. Charles Rangel. The gay Rep. Barney Frank and I spent the night together in the same hotel following a debate (we were in separate rooms). Al Gore and I have been in each other’s company. Does any of this prove something about me? Only that I have a lot of liberal friends and acquaintances.

In 1965, I enlisted in the Army in order to avoid the draft because I was told the chances of getting a good assignment (non-combat) were greater for enlistees than for draftees. I pulled some strings and was assigned to Armed Forces Radio and Television in New York, where I fought commies at Broadway and West 57th Street. When the bureau was later closed and moved to Washington, lower-ranking enlisted men like me were to be shipped to Vietnam, not to serve in combat roles, but to broadcast to troops from Saigon, which I was already doing from New York. I was married with children by then and had served about half the time I had promised the Army when I signed up. I requested and received an early and honorable discharge.

Would any of this part of my life story disqualify me from running for president? Should it? Only if my opponents tried to spin it in a way that would injure whatever credibility I am perceived to have today. And that is the line of attack Democrats, who defended Bill Clinton’s crafty avoidance of service, are pursuing against Mr. Bush. Credibility has been Mr. Bush’s strongest quality, especially following the Clinton years.

Mr. Bush should quickly change the subject. What signal would it send to our highly-motivated enemies should the United States change leaders in mid-war? One of the reasons the United States prevailed in World War II was the four terms to which Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected. Continuity at home helped prosecute the war against Germany and Japan. The stakes today are higher. We cannot afford trivial pursuits as we might with presidential politics during peacetime.

This isn’t a game. It is about the survival of the United States and the values associated with Western traditions. Rejecting an administration that has built a (so far) successful defense against terrorism following September 11 in favor of one with no such experience could give U.S. enemies a unique window of opportunity to hit us again, and harder.

This is the line the Bush re-election team should take. We are at war and we are likely to remain at war for a very long time to come. Political games can be played after we win. They should not be played during the battle. Let’s forget the National Guard and what John Kerry did more than 30 years ago. Old behavior has nothing to do with the current war and pretending that it does will only make us more vulnerable in the crucial conflict to insure our survival.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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