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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Cheney's Draft Deferments Not Outside the Norm

Other men, especially those in college, took that route, an author of a book on the draft says.

September 16, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats now accuse him of ducking a war that defined his generation. But when 18-year-old Dick Cheney became eligible for the draft in 1959, compulsory military service did not loom large in the future vice president's life -- or for many other young men of his generation.

True, Elvis Presley had just been drafted into the Army, but the pace of inductions was slow. The Cold War was on, and few Americans gave any thought to troubles in Southeast Asia.

Over the next eight years, though, the draft would cast a growing shadow over Cheney and others like him as the United States plunged into a military conflict in Vietnam that forced many young men to answer their country's call.

Cheney received his first draft deferment in March 1963, records show, two years before President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a large military offensive in Vietnam.

Days before his 25th birthday, in January 1966, Cheney obtained his fifth and final deferment. It ensured that he would not have to serve in a war that eventually claimed more than 58,000 American lives.

On Jan. 30, 1967, as the war raged, Cheney turned 26, an age that removed him from the draft pool for good.

This period of Cheney's life drew little notice in the 1970s, '80s and '90s as he rose to White House chief of staff under President Ford, House Republican whip and Defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush. It was barely an issue in 2000 when Cheney ran for the vice presidency.

This year, that has changed. Cheney and President George W. Bush are depicting themselves as wartime leaders, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq invasion, and attempting to brand the Democrats as dangerously weak and confused.

In response, Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, this month heaped scorn on Cheney's Vietnam-era draft record.

Kerry enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and volunteered for Swift boat duty in Vietnam.

"I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who have misled America into Iraq," the Massachusetts senator said in Ohio this month. "I'm going to leave it up to the voters to decide whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty."

Cheney has not responded to Kerry in public and his staff declined to comment for this article. In years past, Cheney has acknowledged that he did not want to go to Vietnam.

Kerry's "five deferments" line implies that Cheney was especially zealous in his efforts to escape the draft.

But George Flynn, a retired Texas Tech University history professor and author of a book on the draft, said it was not unusual for men like Cheney to have multiple deferments, especially if they were in college.

Flynn said many students returned periodically to local draft boards to renew deferments. He likened Cheney's case to that of a former Democratic president who was famously a student and not a soldier during Vietnam.

"Cheney got legal deferments, as did thousands of others, including Bill Clinton," Flynn said. "Nothing odd about this behavior. What is odd is that Kerry, a Yale graduate with terrific credentials and opportunities, decided to volunteer for the war."

Cheney received four student deferments, a category called 2-S, according to Selective Service System spokesman Patrick Schuback. They were dated March 20, 1963; July 23, 1963; Oct. 14, 1964; and Nov. 1, 1965.

The deferments came as Cheney was in the midst of an on-and-off college career. He started at Yale in 1959 but flunked out -- by his own admission -- and eventually earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wyoming.

His last deferment, dated Jan. 19, 1966, was category 3-A, usually for men with a family hardship. That came as the Cheneys -- who had married in August 1964 -- were expecting their first baby.

Elizabeth Cheney was born July 28, 1966. Critics have noted that her birth occurred nine months and two days after a change in government policy that made childless married men more likely to be drafted.

To be sure, deferments were common in the 1960s. More than 3.5 million men received 3-A deferments the same year Cheney got his, Schuback said. Another 1.7 million got 2-S deferments that year.

A little more than 343,000 were drafted from July 1, 1965, to June 30, 1966.

However, Cheney's record also shows he was twice given 1-A status, indicating he was able to serve. The first instance was Feb. 15, 1962, when he was first exposed to the draft because government policy then was to confer that status on men who had reached their 20s, experts say. The second time was May 19, 1965.

As a result, there were apparently several months -- especially in 1965 -- when he could have been drafted. In all, 1.8 million men were drafted from 1964 to 1973.

When Cheney faced Senate confirmation hearings in 1989 for his nomination to lead the Pentagon, he was quoted as saying he "would have obviously been happy to serve" had he been called. Another Cheney quote from that time: "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service."

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