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PERSPECTIVE ON THE GULF CRISIS : Who Would Salute 'Danny Boy'? : Quayle's play-acting as vice commander in chief is the height of insensitivity. He's a political time-bomb.

January 06, 1991|JOHN WHEELER | John Wheeler is a writer on national issues on leave at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky

The possibility that raised a fuss in 1988 at J. Danforth Quayle's nomination as vice president has become an actuality: The man who skirted Vietnam service by getting into a stateside National Guard unit turned up in Saudi Arabia Dec. 31 to cheer our soldiers on to war.

The sting is not so much the void between the vice commander in chief's words on New Year's and his deeds back when another President (Lyndon Johnson) and vice president (Hubert Humphrey) were urging the boys to war. If there were a medal for political inconsistency, the competition in Washington would be stiff.

What sets Quayle apart is that he still denies that he or his family had any intent for him to avoid service in Vietnam. The gap between present word and earlier deed, coupled with denial, causes great harm. Soldiers' morale is cut, for one thing. The troops know the score; some in the Persian Gulf call Quayle "Danny Boy" for having golfed his way through the Vietnam era. Troop humor always rises to such an occasion, but Quayle's hypocrisy undermines the integrity of the orders that sent those men and women into harm's way. Officers, too, take the punch. Men who were at West Point with me (I graduated in 1966) feel stung while submitting to Quayle as supreme second-in-command. The pain is not so much for themselves, but that Quayle resurrects the worst of Vietnam, in that the sacrifice and integrity of the troops they command is not matched by senior civilian leaders.

Harm is also done to honest families whose sons and daughters may be killed in action. In the name of the civilian leadership, "I regret to inform you . . . " does not ring true with bereaved parents, wives and kids. I chaired the drive to build the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, spending a decade in the huge effort to heal some of the damage caused by indifference to families with names on the Wall. Why damage a whole new set of families?

Worst of all, this tears at the national fabric. Youth learn that you can "get away with it."

Dan Quayle is not the only case in point. The issue touches all three of the senior civilian command. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney spent from 1959 to 1968 in college and graduate school with no military service at all. Lingering in school was a standard route away from Vietnam, and nine years is a long time in the heat of a war. While President Bush was valorous in World War II, his family sent no one to Vietnam; they passed up the risk of shattering loss that now faces some 400,000 American families. When the President was asked in a recent press conference if the Persian Gulf is worth the life of one of his children, his long answer implied yes, but it went unmentioned that he faces no such problem. He got more tangled in this issue when, in Saudi Arabia, he exuberantly pointed to our soldiers and said they are "just like" his sons.

So why did he send Quayle to visit the troops? The guess among Washington watchers in my circle is that White House polls show that Quayle's military record is a potential political time bomb. The reasoning is that Bush wants to get the issue behind him by sticking his vice president right in our face now, get the muttering over with and rehabilitate Danny Boy in time for the 1992 election.

My judgment is that baby-boom mothers would never condone Quayle--should Bush be incapacitated--sending their children to a questionable war. Nor would fathers who are old enough to remember the fierce competition to get into safe National Guard units during the last war, with family connections typically making the difference.

The prescription for all this is to keep the hypocrisies engraved on the national record and weigh them in 1992. For decency, Quayle should remove himself now from consideration for the ticket.

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