By Donella Meadows
–September 17, 1992–
Which of the following experiences most qualifies a person to be a national leader?
(a). Fought honorably in World War II.
(b). Got his influential daddy to find him a place in the national guard, so he could stay out of the Vietnam War.
(c). Didn’t have an influential daddy, but pulled every string to stay in graduate school during the Vietnam War.
(d). Served in the Vietnam War for the political sake of his influential daddy, who made sure he had a journalistic role far from the firing lines.
(e). This question is cynical, manipulative, and irrelevant to the choice of a national leader.
Many of us out here in voterland think the answer is (e) — almost. We realize that wartime experience is related to leadership. It’s searing, toughening, something that gives great insight into oneself and enduring bonds to one’s fellows. We don’t think it’s the only human experience that can produce that result — we might like to put childbirth on the list, for example, or Bill Clinton’s confrontation with his alcoholic stepfather, or Al Gore’s vigil at the bedside of his grievously wounded child.
But the issue isn’t Toughness, say the Republicans, it’s Character (unless they’re talking to an audience of veterans, where it’s Toughness all the way). It’s not that Bill Clinton ducked the draft, but that he waffled in admitting it.
Character is the central issue, for sure, and Clinton’s slickness bothers us voterland folks a lot. But to stay clear-sighted, we have to keep dragging the spotlight away from the one place each candidate is pointing it — at his opponent — and shine it evenly on everyone. What does this matter of military service reveal about the characters of all four candidates to be president, or a heartbeat away from president?
A wide-beam spotlight reminds us that we’re talking about two different wars, fought for different purposes, occupying very different places in our national psyche. If Quayle, Clinton, and Gore had been 18 years old at the outbreak of World War II, they probably would have gone charging into battle, as most young man did then, including George Bush. What Bush would have done if he had been in the Vietnam generation, we cannot know. But let’s acknowledge that the moral test history posed to him was much simpler than the one posed to his younger colleagues.
Of the three who did face that test, Clinton opposed the war and, after vacillating awhile, stayed out of it. That was what most young men of his class and generation did. Whether or not we agree with his assessment of the war, we have to admit that he was not alone in that assessment, and that his actions were consistent with his beliefs.
Gore opposed the war but went to it anyway, so his senator father would not look bad. That’s hypocrisy, arising out of the complicated interaction of an ambitious son with a powerful father. Of these four young men only Clinton could make his own decisions without the weight of a father who was a public figure.
The Quayle family trumpeted support of the war, but kept their son out of it. That’s higher-order hypocrisy. It’s one thing to ask your son to go to a war for your political self-image. It’s another to whip up the populace to send their sons, while you keep yours at home.
Character issues abound here. They include the duty of a son to his father and to his country, the way a family uses power and privilege, and the ability of a leader to assess the morality of a war without getting entangled in his own wimpish fears or macho fantasies. The deepest Character issue is not what these men did with their military service when they were young, but what they are doing with it now. Clinton and Gore are trying to duck the whole subject, partly because they are uncomfortable with it, partly because they think there are more important things to talk about. Bush and Quayle and their advocates are the ones who bring the draft up again and again, and they do it in a calculated, mean-spirited, deceptive way.
War, family, God, patriotism, these are serious, sacred things. They confront every human being with momentous decisions; they raise in us the strongest emotions. For twelve years the masterminds of the Reagan-Bush regime have been tapping into those emotions, trying to associate all the ignoble ones with one political party and the noble ones with the other. Their claims that only Republicans are patriotic, moral, honest, or devoted to family are not only ridiculous, they are degrading. They fail to respect the difficulties and dignity of the common human condition. They divert, divide, and debase the whole society.
The campaign planners take these cheap shots knowingly. The public record is full of their own statements about how and why they choose their issues and craft their soundbites. They purposely jerk us around by our deepest feelings, using our most precious symbols — children, families, soldiers, flags — so we won’t look at the deficit or the economy or the education system or the condition of our inner cities. They do it, they say, because it works.
That is not only hypocrisy of the highest order of all, it is slickness beyond anything Bill Clinton has ever displayed.
So could we talk about the deficit now?
And would you honorable, respectful Republicans please take back control of your party?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992