September 7, 2008 – Four years after Democrat John Kerry surrounded himself with his “band of brothers” at his convention, Republicans made sure that their just-concluded convention in St. Paul was a celebration of John McCain’s service in Vietnam, particularly his heroic resistance to the torture he endured during long years as a prisoner of war.
In the convention hall, two dozen fellow POWs spread out to champion McCain. Another ex-POW addressed the delegates. And all heard a detailed recitation of his injuries, from fractured bones to cracked ribs to broken teeth.
It was hard to ignore the gray hair on those veterans as they talked about events from the 1960s. And it was sobering to realize that McCain’s candidacy is more of a last chance than a last hurrah for Vietnam veterans in politics. It is a sad reality that they never had their first hurrah. Never enjoyed the parades that greeted the vets of other wars. Never were elected to Congress in large numbers. Never were rushed into running for president.
The contrast is stark with the political plums savored by the veterans of the nation’s other wars. Two of the first five presidents fought in the Revolutionary War along with three other Founding Fathers heavily involved in the Revolution. Three presidents fought in the War of 1812. Two in the Mexican War. One in the Black Hawk War. One in the Spanish-American War. One in World War I.
In the three decades after the Civil War, six of seven presidents were veterans of that contest. In the four decades after World War II, seven of eight presidents were veterans of the war – and the eighth, Jimmy Carter, missed the war by only one year, graduating from the Naval Academy in 1946.
In contrast, in the three decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, not one of the five presidents elected was a Vietnam veteran. And before this year, only twice has a veteran of that war even been nominated – Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
The highest that Vietnam vets reached was in Congress where they gained respect, in part because of what they had done on the battlefields and in the skies of Vietnam. San Diego’s Rep. Duncan Hunter was just one who gained almost immediate influence because of his war record.
That the presidency was denied to any of the 2.5 million Americans who fought in the war is almost certainly a reflection that even today the nation remains conflicted about this most controversial of wars. “The way the country felt about the war unfortunately translates into how they feel about the people who fought it,” lamented Larry Korb, a Vietnam vet and a top Pentagon official under President Reagan.
Because of the aging of Vietnam vets, the presence on this year’s ballot of the 72-year-old McCain is widely considered the last opportunity for this war’s veterans to take that final political step. But there is a wider significance to his candidacy than just that.
This year’s campaign represents probably the final echoes of one of the most divisive debates in American history, one that has played a role in presidential campaigns since 1964.
Whether it was passionate debate over the course of the war or rancorous disputes over allegations of draft evasion by candidates, Vietnam was very much there in Chicago and Miami and Detroit and New York and Houston and New Orleans and all the other conventions of the past five decades.
St. Paul just may be the end of that line.