MARGARET WARNER: An unusual political moment in this presidential campaign took place just outside President Bush's ranch today. Former Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee and Vietnam vet, tried to deliver a letter to the president.
Co-signed by eight Democratic senators who are veterans, the letter urged the president to condemn ads from the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that criticized John Kerry's Vietnam service. But a secret service agent and a state trooper posted at the entrance refused to accept the letter.
A Texas veteran, who said he was acting on behalf of the Bush campaign, said he would take the letter, but Cleland refused to give it to him. Cleland later spoke to reporters.
FORMER SEN. MAX CLELAND: For those of us in the Vietnam era, we're having to go through Vietnam again. We're having to go through the divisive aspect of politics dividing our nation and dividing us one from another.
That is not what we ought to be doing in America. We can do better than that.
MARGARET WARNER: Why does the Vietnam war remain such a potent political issue? To explore that from an historical perspective, we're joined by: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois; and Meena Bose, professor of American politics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Welcome to you all.
Before we leap into Vietnam, Michael, let's remind ourselves and our viewers this is not the first time a candidate's military service or lack of service has been an issue in a presidential campaign.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, it isn't. If I ran through them all, we would have to be three hours with Jim Lehrer, not the NewsHour, I'm afraid. Maybe one example, 1960 -- War World II was in the recent past, probably the war in American history about which most Americans feel the best except for our revolution.
Hubert Humphrey was running in the West Virginia primary against John Kennedy. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. said about Humphrey, he is a good Democrat but I don't know where he was in War World II., referring to the fact that Humphrey had not fought. As it turned out, Humphrey had a medical deferment, it was perfectly honorable. Humphrey replied that this was gutter politics.
MARGARET WARNER: So that was sort of the lack of service and then Meena Bose, there have certainly been many candidates who have run as military heroes, as former generals or commanders.
Certainly, we can go back to the Revolutionary War, George Washington, of course, our first President. Andrew Jackson ran for president on his battle for the War of 1812 and Dwight D. Eisenhower during War World II known to the world as supreme allied commander that led allied forces into D-Day.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, what would you add to this rich tradition of military service as a campaign issue?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It's a rich and sometimes frankly a nasty tradition. Thomas Jefferson was accused of cowardess because as governor of Virginia during the revolution, he managed to escape Monticello one step ahead of invading British Red Coats. Fifty years later, the Democrats nominated Franklin Pierce for president in part of his alleged record in the Mexican American War.
Unfortunately he had fallen off his horse at one point and the opponent took to referring to him as the fainting general. And then after the Civil War generation, 20 years after the end of the war, there was Grover Cleveland who had taken advantage of the law at the time that allowed anyone with $300 to hire a substitute to fight for him in the war. Interesting enough, all three men won the election.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Michael this debate now that has been going on now, that's been going on heavily for three weeks over John Kerry's Vietnam service seems particularly bitter and particularly emotional. How do you explain that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, the elder George Bush said in his inaugural in 1989 the Vietnam War cleaves us still. That was only 14 years after end of the war. Here we are almost 30 years later, and it still does. And it's something that Bill Clinton actually said in the last couple of months, he said, if you feel good about the ferment and the protest of the 1960s, you are probably a Democrat. And if you feel bad about it, you are probably a Republican.
And in a way, Vietnam is sort of a Rorschach test especially because nowadays John Kerry has used his service to suggest not only was he a hero but also that he is fit to be commander in chief and the Democrats are strong on national security. So that sort of invites the opposition to try to go after that in some way.
MARGARET WARNER: Meena Bose, what's your theory? What would you add to that about why Vietnam as an issue continue to roil our politics so?
MEENA BOSE: Well, I think when you look at the current generation of politicians they came of age during the Vietnam War. So we're still in the period where many of our public officials' earliest political experiences were formulated in response to service in the Vietnam War or in response to the war. I think it will be a few more years before we move past that stage in American politics.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, what would you add to that?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I agree certainly with both Michael and Meena. I would add one other thing. It is interesting. You know, a lot of the issues that have traditionally divided and polarized the American people are not out there, notwithstanding what you heard Sen. Kerry talk about the economy.
Remember, Bill Clinton said the era of big government was over. A lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill under this President Bush who are spending like Democrats -- so the old defining issues, particularly economics, have gradually been replaced by cultural divisions and cultural divisions by their very nature can be uglier, more intensely felt and Vietnam is, as Michael said, Vietnam is symbolic of a whole cultural upheaval that took place in the 1960s and 1970s -- the anti-war movement inseparable from the women's movement, gay rights -- a whole series of challenges to what might be called the established order and 30 years later we are still debating it.
MARGARET WARNER: So would you agree with that, Michael, and David Broder wrote yesterday in the Washington Post that this is just the latest in what he called an unending culture war left over from the late '60s, early '70s.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right. And also the way that campaigns are fought today. You have symbols that seem to mean something larger than they are. So if you have, for instance, John Kerry at the Democratic Convention who is seen as a great war hero at the time of Vietnam, that means he is strong. T
hat means that he deflects some of the criticism that has been against Democrats since the time of George McGovern, that they're too weak. So where you stand on Vietnam, what you did at the time, the way you look back at it means a lot more. 1980, for instance, Ronald Reagan said the Vietnam War was a noble cause. That was a very unusual thing for someone to say at the time.
MARGARET WARNER: But doesn't this, Meena Bose, reflect an ongoing ambivalence about the Vietnam War itself -- that split not only our country at that time but even today?
MEENA BOSE: Yes, I think that's right, that the Vietnam War continues to divide people because it was an unresolved war. Some people view it as a terrible loss. Others see it as a potential victory that could have gone further if we had stayed in longer. We still haven't decided, we haven't come to terms with how the Vietnam War ended.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Richard, the Vietnam War has really, wouldn't you say in every election since '68, maybe with the exception... even in '96, it has been an issue, has it not, or a subtext and a particularly tough one for Democrats?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It has been because of course it divided the Democratic Party absolutely down the middle. Who will ever forget - I mean, in 1968 who watched those pictures of that convention in Chicago where there was a riot outside the hall and a virtual riot inside the hall as the party literally tore itself apart, much as the nation had to some degree torn itself apart.
I remember saying on the last night of the recent convention in Boston, that I thought the historical significance of that week was the Democrats had finally managed to lay the ghost of Vietnam to rest. I think I was probably premature.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. And we are all still uneasy. What do you say about this war? Most Americans have the same feeling about most of our wars. You know, I had an experience a couple years ago. I was looking at these Lyndon Johnson tapes and in private Johnson I found was saying, you know, at the time he was beginning to send Americans like John Kerry and others to Vietnam he was saying I can't think of anything worse than losing the war and I don't see any way we can win.
This was 1965. And I talked to veterans. What do you say to veterans or someone who had a family member die about the fact that a president at the beginning was so pessimistic about winning the war and at the end many people now feel that it should not have been fought. How were those lives given?
MARGARET WARNER: Meena Bose, were there other wars in American history that had this persistent political divisive quality? I'm thinking, for instance, of the Civil War?
MEENA BOSE: Certainly. Well, the Civil War, of course, was a watershed event in American politics. Over half a million Americans fought in that war, fought against each other. And it wasn't really resolved for another 100 years until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. So in many ways I would say that the Civil War was perhaps the most divisive conflict we've ever seen in U.S. History.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you say, Richard, that this debate today still pales in sort of impact to the impact the Civil War had on our politics and our sense of being one nation?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think just because of the scope and magnitude of that war. But I would also mention World War I. There was the idea that set in against Wilsonian idealism and the notion that the United States had a moral obligation, a commitment on the world stage, expressed, for instance, through League of Nations. And in fact for 20 years American isolationism was deepened and the role of American presidents, including famously Franklin Roosevelt was made harder because people harbored very bitter memories of what they thought World War I was going to be all about, and what it had turned out to be about.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I would even say the Civil War - I disagree with Meena a little bit - I think that is not in any way laid to rest. Look at the 2000 campaign where when John McCain was campaigning in South Carolina in 2000, he muffled himself about the use of the confederate flag and later on said he was ashamed and embarrassed of what he had done and wished that he had said otherwise. That's why even at this late date, the Civil War in odd ways continues to bounce in a way that reflects these divisions.
MARGARET WARNER: And Meena Bose, going back now to the Vietnam War, I mean, we think of the classic division was between those who either served or supported the war and those who opposed it. But what we're seeing today too is that there are even divisions in the ranks of veterans.
MEENA BOSE: That's right. There continues to be a lot of conflict in perceptions of what service means and the degree of service, the length of service. It is not clear whether this will continue to be of importance in the coming months.
I think that the Vietnam War was still very divisive but it is not clear that it is going to be decisive in this election.
MARGARET WARNER: Your final thoughts, Richard on this?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, you know, I keep wondering what people in their 20 s, 30s and 40s think about this debate. I mean, for them, Vietnam is as remote in time as Korea or the War of 1812.
What they're looking at, it seems to me, is not necessarily what happened outside Cambodia or inside Cambodia 35 years ago, but how both George W. Bush and John Kerry handle the controversy today. That tells much more about the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think quickly, Richard, that perhaps - I mean, there has been a lot of talk about how this has been media driven. You think a lot of people in leadership positions today in major newspapers and television stations are themselves all baby boomers who came of age during the war?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Precisely. I think they are branded for life with Vietnam. It is almost like at the turn of the beginning of the 20th century, the Dreyfus Affair in France. I mean, it is disproportionately important to the so-called opinion leaders of society.
I'll tell you, people out here in Springfield, Illinois, by and large, are not talking very much about the specifics of John Kerry's war record or whether he earned his purple heart.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Richard, Michael, and Meena Bose, thank you all three.