"By the time you hitters figure out what to do," Manager Ted Williams once told his Washington Senators, "you’re too old to do it!" Yes, life’s lessons are learned slowly. And by the time I finally realize some of my old teachers were right about a few things, they’re too dead for me to tell them so.
Take the Vietnam War, for example. I was a veteran of that not-so-great war (I liked to call it "World War ‘Nam") by the time I started college and I was still a hawk. In fact, I would guess I was more hawkish than most Viet vets, a seemingly small number of whom had become, la John Kerry, outspoken in opposition to the war. The rest seemed to support it on the general grounds of patriotism and loyalty and anticommunism. I, on the other hand, was ideologically committed.
I scorned, but did not read, the works of men like Bernard Fall ("Hell in a Very Small Place") and others who warned that the U.S. forces were about to go the way of the French at Dienbienphu. What need had I of the counsel of such nefarious naysayers, such bogus Bohemian Bolsheviks, those dissolute, degenerate doomsayers, those nattering nabobs of negativism? I had the speeches of Spiro Agnew. I had my National Review.
Yes, Saigon fell and all that, but that’s not my focus here. I recall that in the years 1969—71, I had a college professor who might have been created by a cartoonist at National Review. Perhaps in his early to mid-forties, he had receding red hair (Communism on the run?), with long muttonchop sideburns and was as liberal as any young conservative could want his middle-aged foil to be. I mean, an ACLU, ADA, prayers-out-of-school, troops-out-of-Vietnam, anti-military-industrial-complex liberal. His political heroes were either dead (Robert Kennedy) or had been muscled out of contention for the White House by the political bosses (Eugene McCarthy). His Great Left Hope, George McGovern would soon capture the Democratic presidential nomination, only to discover it was not worth having.
I remember once having a friendly discussion with this "prof" about the student radicals of the day, the New Left, upon whom he looked with favor while I was appalled. Look, I told him, we don’t need rebellion in the streets. We have a democratic process through which we resolve policy disputes. They’re called elections — or what President Bush in our time has called an "accountability moment."
"Yeah?" the professor said. "What choice did I have in the last election? I could choose between Nixon, who supports the war and Humphrey who supported the war." I saw he had a point. At least I could have yielded to temptation and done what I now consider would have been the sensible thing and voted for third-party candidate George Wallace. Instead, I listened to Barry Goldwater: "Please don’t throw away your vote by voting for George Wallace," Goldwater exhorted conservatives from the cover of Bill Buckley’s National Review.
But for the liberal professor, Wallace was not an option. And neither Wallace, who ran the most successful third-party insurgency since that of former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, nor any other candidate outside the two-party "duopoly" had any chance to win, anyway. Yes, my professor friend could have cast a brave and lonely vote for Dick Gregory, Pat Paulsen or some other comedian, but he had no real choice but the "choice" offered in the Republocratic intramural contest. He could vote for a candidate who would continue the war in Vietnam or for his opponent, who would do the same.
In other words, to reverse the battle cry of the Goldwater rebellion in ’64, he had an echo, not a choice. Tweedledee vs. Tweedledum. He could agree with Wallace on one point: "Thay’s not a dahm’s wuth o’ diff’rence" between the two major parties. To reprise a line used by the aforementioned Mr. Buckley about an earlier campaign, the ’68 election was essentially "a debate between the Smith Brothers over cough drops."
Fast forward to 2004. The Democrats looked like they might do something radical and oppose the incumbent with an opposition candidate. Dr. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had a clear anti-war position, but was perceived as too far left, another potential electoral disaster in the image and likeness of McGovern, who had inspired the American voting public to give a 49-state landslide victory to that old charmer, Richard Nixon. In fact, National Review, hoping for a Republican landslide, put Dean on its cover in ’03 and urged Democrats to "Please Nominate This Man!"
So the Democrats "came to their senses" and nominated John F. Kerry, who was thought to be more moderate, more centrist, less intelligible, more ambiguous. He was for the war before he was against it, but he still wasn’t really against it. And if he knew in ’02 what we all knew in ’04, he still would have voted to give the president the authority to start the war with Iraq, ’cause presidents need that sort of thing, Big John reckoned. But he was for getting out sometime and even suggested he might start — start! — withdrawing the troops early in his second — second — term!
Alas, poor Kerry. A hero in the Vietnam War and then a hero to the anti-war crowd for opposing it, he managed, as presidential candidate, to make peace appear not only unattainable, but incomprehensible.
He was not alone. One of the congressional hopefuls in a Democratic primary in New Hampshire in ’06 sort of opposed the war, but didn’t actually say he wanted to bring the troops home. He said he was after "accountability." After listening to his campaign ads, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to end the war or audit it.
Listen closely to what the "Big Three" Democratic candidates for President — Clinton, Obama, Edwards — are saying and pay even more attention to what they are not saying. They, like some of their Republican counterparts, are trying to have it both ways. Clinton and Edwards, like Kerry, were for the war before they were against it and both voted to authorize the president to start it. But they can’t end it, because they want to be responsible and loyal, supporting the troops and the war on terror and our country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, whose eyes have seen the glory and deliver us from accountability, Amen!
Obama at least opposed the war from the beginning, but is not so "irresponsible" as to propose bringing our troops home now. He might rather redeploy them to Afghanistan or perhaps Pakistan, should we have "actionable intelligence" of a plot there to once again attack America.
The fact that a major candidate for President can still speak with seeming credibility — with a straight face, in other words — about "actionable intelligence" after what has happened in the past five years suggests that the intelligence of the candidates is, with a few notable exceptions, still at "ground zero."
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.