Dick Cheney has positioned himself as the Bush Administration’s point man in the ongoing work of questioning the national security credentials of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Cheney’s latest attacks on Kerry come as part of a renewed push by the Bush/Cheney campaign, the Republican National Committee and their media allies to suggest that somewhere in the story of Kerry’s evolution from decorated Vietnam War combatant to outspoken antiwar activist in the early 1970s can be found evidence that he is unfit to serve as Commander in Chief.
But what of Cheney’s Vietnam-era story? Like Kerry, Cheney was “of age” for service. Faced with the chance to engage on the battlefield or the home front, however, he dodged out–not for moral reasons but selfish ones. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, who interviewed Cheney for his book They Marched Into Sunlight, says the Vice President just couldn’t be bothered. “I think he’s emblematic of a certain type. He wasn’t against the war, just didn’t want anything to do with it,” explains Maraniss. “He wanted to get on with his life and not let the world get in the way.”
Unfortunately, the world had a tendency to get in the way of young men who, like Cheney, were of draft age when the US troop presence in Vietnam began to rise in the mid-1960s. As a result, there was one sense in which Cheney mirrored the actions, if not the politics, of his fellow students. Dick Cheney was definitely opposed to the draft, at least as far as it affected him. Indeed, unlike George W. Bush, who performed some sort of service–ill-defined and unrecorded as it may have been–in the Texas Air National Guard, Cheney reacted to the prospect of wearing his country’s uniform like a man with a deadly allergy to olive drab. Between 1963 and ’65, Cheney used his student status at Casper College and the University of Wyoming to apply for and receive four 2-S draft deferments. As the war in Vietnam heated up, Cheney fought to defend and expand his deferments. Twenty-two days after Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, raising the prospect of a rapid expansion of the draft, he “coincidentally”–in the words of a Washington Post profile–married Lynne. The advantage was that even if his student deferment was lifted, his married status might carry some weight with his draft board.
But the Vietnamese were not cooperating with Cheney’s schemes. The war kept demanding more and more young American men, and the range of those who were eligible for the draft expanded rapidly. On May 19, 1965, Cheney was reclassified with the most dangerous draft status: 1-A, “available for military service.” Soon afterward, Lyndon Johnson announced that draft call-ups would double, and on October 26, Selective Service constraints on the drafting of childless married men were lifted. Danang was calling. And it didn’t look like Dick had any excuses left.
But there was one way for ambitious young men to avoid serving their country while maintaining their political viability. If Cheney had a child, he’d be reclassified 3-A, removing him from the pool of those likely to be drafted. Cheney needed a kid–quick. And he got one. Precisely nine months and two days after the Selective Service eliminated special protections for childless married men, Cheney was no longer childless. His daughter Elizabeth was born on July 28, 1966. Convenient? Coincidence? That’s not Cheney’s style. Writer Timothy Noah did the math and suggested that the timing of Elizabeth’s arrival “would seem to indicate that the Cheneys, though doubtless planning to have children sometime, were seized with an untamable passion the moment Dick Cheney became vulnerable to the Vietnam draft. And acted on it. Carpe diem! Who says government policy can’t affect human behavior?” Cheney applied for 3-A status immediately, receiving it on January 19, 1966, when Lynne was still in the first trimester of her pregnancy.
Twenty-three years later, when Cheney appeared before the Senate to plead the case for his confirmation as George Herbert Walker Bush’s Defense Secretary, he was questioned about his failure to serve. Cheney responded that he “would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called.” In a more truthful moment that same year, Cheney admitted to a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” Cheney’s lie to the Senate has never caused much concern, but that “other priorities” line has dogged him. After he selected himself to serve on the 2000 Republican ticket, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, a Vietnam veteran disabled by a gunshot wound to his right arm, said, “As a former Marine who was wounded and nearly lost his life, I personally resent that comment. I resent that he had ‘other priorities,’ when 58,000 people died and over 300,000 returned wounded and disabled. In my mind there is no doubt that because he had ‘other priorities’ someone died or was injured in his place.”
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but the fact is that at least a dozen men aged 19 to 47 from Cheney’s adopted hometown of Casper, Wyoming, died in Vietnam during the period when Cheney might have served. Because local draft boards had to fill quotas when a man who was eligible got a deferment, someone else had to fill the slot. The vagaries of draft quotas, military service and the war itself make it impossible to say whether Leroy Robert Cardenas or Walter Elmer Handy or Douglas Tyrone Patrick or any of the other sons of Casper who perished in Southeast Asia might have survived the war years and gone on to explore their “other priorities” if Cheney had responded to his country’s call. But that doesn’t stop some of those who served from asking, “Who died in your place, Dick Cheney?” Vietnam veteran Dennis Mansker raises that question on his website, where he maintains a list of the dead from Casper. Maybe Cheney did have other priorities, Mansker argues, but “so did these guys.”