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Tuesday, September 07, 2004
Apparently 60 Minutes, this Wednesday, is going to run an expose on what President Bush was doing that year when he was supposed to be in the Texas / Alabama National Guard and nobody knows where he was. I am ambivalent about this issue, because I really do wish the Presidential campaign would focus on more important things, like Iraq and the deficit, but here are a couple of observations about this issue:

1. A lot of Bush's supporters have tried to make Bush's National Guard service into some noble cause akin to the current Guard members putting their lives on the line in Iraq, when we all know that in the Vietnam era this was a route for rich kids (like Dan Quayle) to not have to go to Vietnam while not explicitly dodging the draft either. Bush-- who could have defused this by simply having the guts to say that he didn't want to go to Vietnam and admires greatly those who did-- has never said a word about this argument being made on his behalf.

2. The (tacitly) Bush-sponsored Swift Boat ads (falsely) trashed Kerry's service record and his activities protesting Vietnam. Again, Bush could have defused this by simply condemning the Swift Boat ads as false and contemptible (no, not all 527 ads, just the Swift Boat ones). But he didn't (again, he does not have the guts to ever tell members of his base that they are full of it), and if voters have a right to consider whether Kerry has told the truth about 35 years ago, they certainly have the right to consider whether Bush has told the truth about 33 years ago.

The truth is, I am sure Bush did a lot of unsavory and unadmirable things when he was a young alcoholic. I also think it is quite likely that he didn't take his service to his country very seriously and had no intention of going to Vietnam. I happen to admire Bush for having overcome the problems of his youth. But let's face it-- the reason his comeback from alcoholism and youthful irresponsibility is so impressive is because he was so irresponsible in his younger years. He has never been willing to admit this in anything other than oblique terms. He has admitted that he was "young and irresponsible" but has never admitted specifics-- cocaine, multiple DUI's, avoiding Vietnam service, lots of womanizing, etc. (The reason for this is because he has a lot of supporters on the religious right who feel these things reflect badly on one's character even if one later repents for them.)

By the way, I don't think Bush has to admit these things. He really doesn't. I'm fine with him just obliquely saying he was young and irresponsible-- though I do wish he would just admit why he didn't go to Vietnam.

But here's the problem. Kerry was a very responsible youth. Really. He risked his life for his country, and then came back and exercised his First Amendment rights to try to end a war that he thought was immoral and save the lives of other young American and Vietnamese citizens. About the only irresponsible things that you could argue he did were using too extreme rhetoric in the Senate and throwing away the ribbons and medals-- and even those acts are actually quite defensible in context. But here's my point: even if you believe that Kerry went too far in some of his war protesting activities, such acts are probably not nearly as irresponsible as some of the things Bush did before he turned his life around.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with something I've said for some time. Bush should not be attacked for the fact that in his youth, he was irresponsible. I don't care-- he's clearly turned his life around, and we should all admire that. But Bush-- and his surrogates as well-- have no business attacking Kerry for his actions when he was young, because if what Kerry did at age 27 is fair game, then the vastly worse things that Bush did before he cleaned up his life are also fair game. And the Bush people don't want to play that way. They need Kerry's youthful anti-war activities to portray him as a dangerous leftist peacenik. (Notice, for instance, Zell Miller's out of context quotation of Kerry's remark-- from his college days-- that he opposed US military actions without UN approval. Kerry has never repeated this remark, and voted for Kosovo and Iraq wars without UN approval, but Miller still used it.)

In this context, Bush deserves what he gets in terms of the examinations of his sordid past.

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