THE BELL CURVE -- joseph n. bell

With the nomination and election of a president coming up next year,

we're going to be hearing a lot about the military service of the

candidates. Such information has been de rigueur for the better part of

the 20th century, but there will be one enormous change in the election

of 2000: the candidates will be talking -- or trying to avoid talking --

about Vietnam instead of World War II.

In every presidential election since Harry Truman upset Tom Dewey in 1946

-- with the sole exception of Bill Clinton -- the winner has served in

the military during a war. Truman was the last of the World War I

presidents. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush, Johnson and Ford were deeply

involved in World War II combat. Carter and Nixon saw noncombat duty with

the Navy, and Reagan made training films.

George Bush got his Navy wings in Corpus Christi, Texas, two weeks after

I did. We are on facing pages in the Navy yearbook called, rather

quaintly in this era of computerized jets, "The Slipstream." What

happened after we were commissioned illustrates dramatically what a large

role luck plays during a war. Because the U.S. was losing pilots rapidly

in the Pacific, my entire graduating class was sent to instructor's

school to learn how to teach the increasing number of pilots being

trained. George Bush's class was processed immediately for combat in the

South Pacific, where a substantial number of them were killed.

Not surprisingly, Bush's campaign managers spent a good deal of time and

effort contrasting his distinguished military record with Clinton's

sidestepping during Vietnam. It didn't appear to change very many minds.

The reason, it seems to me, is that because these were very different

wars, individual comparisons were not seen as valid.

While World War II was a period of unparalleled national unity, Vietnam

was a time of violent disagreement that failed our combat troops

miserably and probably damaged this country more irreparably than any

event since the American Civil War.

There was a special kind of wrenching that took place among World War II

vets with sons of military age who opposed the Vietnam War. Although I

was spared this agony because my son failed the physical exam as the

result of a serious childhood illness, I was prepared to support whatever

course he chose.

I bring this up now because of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times

that explored in great detail the military choices made by Al Gore during

the Vietnam War. It is tough reporting and useful information that I hope

will be researched with equal diligence for the other major candidates.

I also hope this information will be measured against the realities of

the Vietnam War period. That war was fought for us mostly by military

professionals and kids without clout. The young men who went to work out

of high school were fair game and were drafted by the hundreds of

thousands. The sons of middle- and upper-class Americans were protected

in college for four years and then by such early combat shelters as the

military reserves and the various state National Guards.

It was when these alternatives became overcrowded or ran their course

that Lyndon Johnson started to feel the real heat to get us out of

Vietnam. In World War II, students left college by the thousands to

enlist in the military; during Vietnam, they flocked to colleges by the

thousands to avoid military service in a war that the majority of

Americans didn't support. Bill Clinton was simply following this lead.

It's unfortunate -- and also hypocritical -- that he couldn't deal with

his opposition to that war directly and honestly. Gore did, dramatizing

the difference once more between Gore and Clinton on moral issues.

Gore's U.S. Senator father was one of the leading opponents of the

Vietnam War in Congress. His son was deeply involved in antiwar

activities at Harvard. So when Al got out of college, he had a tough

decision to make: heed his country's call to fight a war to which he was

implacably opposed, or use the clout available to him to avoid it.

After agonizing for several weeks, he joined the Army and served for five

months in Vietnam. That he has exaggerated his role in the war in public

statements is unfortunate. But the bottom line is that he made a tough

decision in which duty to his country superseded his strong feelings of

antipathy for the war.

When you're weighing the military claims of the candidates in the months

to come, consider that Bill Bradley's Vietnam service was stateside in

the Air Force Reserve. George W. Bush -- from a family that strongly

supported the Vietnam War -- embraced the safety net of the Texas Air

National Guard. So did J. Danforth Quayle, whose family newspapers poured

gasoline on the Vietnam conflict daily, but saw fit to help son Dan find

a sinecure in the Indiana National Guard.

There is one substantial Vietnam figure among the presidential

candidates: Arizona Senator John McCain. That his war service was

predestined by the achievements of his military family takes nothing away

from his heroism. But we need to look at the others with a clear eye,

too. And if the military issue is fuzzy, the hypocrisy may not be.

* JOSEPH N. BELL is a Santa Ana Heights resident. His column runs

Thursdays.

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