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.