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Bush hardly looks back, or around, in Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

White House officials from President Bush on down bristle at the idea that the war in Iraq bears any parallels with the Vietnam War, which ended with the United States’ dramatic evacuation of its embassy in 1975.

But as Bush and Vietnamese officials have focused on the future during the president’s weekend visit here, that bitter past continues to intrude.

Arriving in Hanoi on Friday, the president and Laura Bush were driven past Truc Bach, the lake where in 1967 a young Navy pilot named John McCain was rescued by residents after he bailed out of his A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft on a bombing run over Hanoi. McCain’s rescue led to his 5 1/2 -year imprisonment in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” jail for prisoners of war.

“He’s a friend of ours,” Bush said of the man who challenged him for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. “He suffered a lot as a result of his imprisonment, and yet we passed the place where he was, literally, saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out.”

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The president’s motorcade route Saturday took him within sight of the mausoleum that entombs the remains of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who ended French colonial rule after World War II and then led the communist North Vietnam against the United States.

Bush also made a brief, low-key visit to a U.S. military office. The small staff investigates sites throughout the country in search of remains of American troops; more than 1,300 still are listed as missing from the 10-year U.S. military operations here. He spent about 15 minutes there and made no public comment.

In reporting on the president’s day, his national security advisor, Stephen J. Hadley, mentioned the visit only as an afterthought.

The Vietnam War is still an emotional benchmark for many older Americans. This administration is focused on another war.

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That war, too, continued to intrude: As Hadley spoke, on either side of his lectern two large television screens tuned to CNN showed a documentary displaying one bloodied and mangled body after another. It was about combat medicine in Iraq.

Bill Clinton’s visit to Vietnam six years ago was the first by a U.S. president. His welcome was effusive from young and old on Hanoi’s streets. He worked the crowds as though he were running for office. He visited Vietnam National University, ate lunch among Vietnamese at a diner, and held a round-table discussion with young people about the Information Age.

On this visit, with the exception of the tour of the U.S. military’s POW-MIA office and a stop this morning at Cua Bac Cathedral to attend a worship service, Bush’s comings and goings in an armored Cadillac limousine flown in from Washington have been limited to official appointments tied to the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Still, Hadley said, “We’re in the midst of the Vietnamese people all the time.”

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Hanoi’s crowded streets were cleared of the ubiquitous motor scooters, but pedestrians and vendors remained on the sidewalks, whereas in some cities Bush visits, security officials keep nearly everyone off the streets.

Hadley said the president’s encounters reflected “the friendliness and openness of the Vietnamese people.”

“He’s seen it by the interactions he has had, by the waves of hands on the streets, the number of people -- whether they are office workers or hotel workers or restaurant workers -- who, when he leaves an event, come up and want their picture taken with the president,” Hadley said. “So I think he’s gotten a real sense of the warmth of the Vietnamese people and their willingness to put a very difficult period for both the United States and Vietnam behind them, to look forward.”

Some distance from the president’s course through the city, dissidents sent out word that police officers had taken an activist, Pham Hong Son, from his house, held him for seven hours and beat him. The police denied that an assault took place, Reuters reported.

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The flap brought attention to Vietnam’s human rights record. Four days before Bush arrived, the State Department removed Vietnam from a list of nations restricting free religious practice. Had Vietnam received bad marks from the government on this front, the president’s visit to the cathedral would have come across as defiant.

Bush’s visit comes less than two weeks after American voters dealt Republicans a striking setback, handing majority control of the House and Senate to Democrats.

It was a topic that came up in contacts with other leaders, and Hadley said Bush assured them there would be no shift in U.S. foreign policy.

“They are politicians,” Hadley said of the Vietnamese officials. And even though Bush operates in a very different political system than they do, they have faced situations “like what he is in.”

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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