Every time I see Dan Quayle, I think of Albert Fletcher. And I've been seeing a lot of Dan Quayle lately.
Quayle and Fletcher were neighbors. They are the same age. Beyond that, they might well have lived on separate planets.
Fletcher's divorced mother raised Albert and his brother by herself. She worked for many years in the post office, and the family scraped by. The boys worked a lot when they were growing up, and the family was never wanting. It was a warm, outgoing household in which the boys received a sturdy Midwestern upbringing.
When Albert was graduated from high school, there was neither money nor drive for college. He went to work in a local factory and was soon drafted into the Army to go and fight in Vietnam. There was no way out for Albert. He had no clout, no educational reprieve, no knowledge of the National Guard option. Albert was the stuff of which Vietnam draftees were made.
We spent our summers in Indiana then, and Albert Fletcher was one of the coterie of young people who hung out at our house and played softball with us daily and swam off our dock. So when he got to San Francisco, he phoned us. He was awaiting shipment overseas, and he was scared and bewildered. He had never before been out of Indiana, and we were a piece of home he could touch. There wasn't time for him to come and visit, but he couldn't end the telephone call. It was like cutting an umbilical. There were long silences before we gently bade him Godspeed and hung up.
Albert was one of the lucky ones who came back whole of body and apparently of mind. Today, he's an electrician in a small Indiana town, does some private contracting on the side, has a delightful wife and two fine sons and pretty much has his life together. I visited him several times during my trip to Indiana this summer. One of those visits came the day after Quayle and George Bush launched their campaign in Huntington a few miles away.
Albert isn't much of a talker, but when I asked him how he felt about Quayle's military record, so much in contrast with his own, he didn't hesitate very long. "I don't care," he said. "I don't blame him for that. I would have gotten out of it, too--if I could."
But the point, I've been realizing more and more in the weeks since that conversation, is that he couldn't. Albert is one of the have-nots in our society, and Dan Quayle one of the haves. The Vietnam War was cashiered only after we ran out of Alberts to draft and began sending the children of upper-middle-class parents. That's when the heat on Lyndon Johnson grew intense enough to drive him out of office.
The press has been assailed for badgering Quayle on his military record, and the issue has turned into a debate about whether or not Quayle has been unfairly attacked rather than the more substantial issue of how he has dealt with this matter. And in that process, two points have been generally overlooked that are brought into sharp relief by contrasting Albert Fletcher's experience with that of his neighbor, Dan Quayle.
First of all, Fletcher can pass off the issue because he admits freely that he "would have gotten out of it" if he could. Anyone who lived through that period knows that National Guard service was a way of "getting out of it." There's no particular opprobrium attached to that, and Quayle would seem a lot more straightforward if he simply admitted that's what he was up to instead of trying to paint the National Guard as momentarily awaiting combat.
The second point is more subtle. Albert Fletcher fought in Vietnam because a substantial segment of the American establishment saw this as a holy war against communism and was urging the expansion of American forces there. In the forefront of that effort were the Quayle family newspapers--his grandfather's papers in Indianapolis and Arizona, and his father's paper in Huntington. As associate publisher of his father's newspaper, Quayle enthusiastically poured gasoline on the conflagration that sent people like Albert Fletcher to fight in Vietnam. But when it came his turn, Quayle "got out of it" to the National Guard, which seems to me hypocrisy of a pretty high order. The young men who went to Canada or to jail at least had the courage of their convictions.
I think a lot about that phone call from Albert when I weigh these matters today.