Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Nov. 28, 2000 / 1 Kislev, 5761

James Lileks

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Debbie Schlussel
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore -- ONLY NIXON could go to China, as the axiom has it. Now a modern variant: Only Clinton shouldn't go to Vietnam.

And as far as most of the country seems concerned, he didn't. and surely this galls him. We were supposed to bask in Big Bill's beloved repertoire - the grin when he grips a peasant's hand, the bitten-lower-lip and brimming-eye combo when he confronts a Painful Reminder of the war, the Stateman's Nod when some humorless wannabe Ho expresses a desire for warm relations and IMF credits. Why, the wounds of the war were healed and sealed, and we were all off chattering about chads.

Doesn't matter. History isn't written by the victors anymore. It's written by media hacks who can't resist facile parallels, and Clinton knows it. He trusts the media to see the Vietnam experience reflected in his own personal arc: The man who protested the war becomes the man who makes the final peace, etc. etc. But it's a little more complex than that.

Some people seem to believe that Clinton was a towering force in the anti-war movement, a strategist who sat cross-legged on a straw map amidst clouds of reefer smoke, peering into the distance and ordering organizational purges between enigmatic pronouncements. ("MacNamara's greatest weakness . . . is that he has only strengths.") Not so. He was a hanger-on, an opportunist, one gigantic wet finger ever sensitive to the political winds. Let's name the real hard-core anti-war activists who are now major political figures, shall we?

1. Um . . . That one guy who was in that movie
2. Barbarella
3. Abbie Hoffman! No, wait, he's dead.

Fact is, the real anti-war activists were willing to marginalize themselves for their beliefs. Clinton hitched a ride. Even the famous letter he wrote to avoid military service is a masterpiece of weasely evasion, written with one eye on his political viability. People think Clinton said he "loathed the military." He didn't. Here's the quote:

"I am writing in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give."

Classic Bill. Wears you down with his insistent promiscuous empathy, makes an oblique attack and fobs it off on others: Some people find themselves loathing the military. Not necessarily him, of course, although fine people loath it, and Bill might be considered a member of the subset "fine people," although the subset "fine people that include Bill Clinton" and "fine people who loath the military" do not necessarily intersect. Yet we all know what he means. It's implausible deniability.

But it works for his fellow fine people. And who are they? Why, the cossetted offspring of the Greatest Generation. These tender plums and peaches, raised in the quiet groves of suburbia, simply could not believe they might be required to die in someone else's civil war. An understandable reaction, since the stakes seemed low compared to the permeable nature of one's own hide. But what really sealed the deal for Clinton's ilk was the nature of the enemy. Communism, to the new left and its useful dupes, was not the foe. The enemy was the people who regarded Communism as the enemy. If they opposed Uncle Ho today, well, they'd be confiscating Doors albums tomorrow, man.

The protesters got their way. Vietnam is now a dictatorship. Vietnam has an economy so twisted by bureaucracy and corruption that nothing ever gets done, and it takes a year not to do it. There's no freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to choose one's leaders. Yes, the country was occupied by foreign devils, and yes, they had every right to fight for independence. But this is like applauding Lenin for his heroic efforts to end the inequity of hereditary rule.

Of Clinton's opportunistic motives, the standard histories will say little. It was enough that he protested; it was enough that he went in the end, and that's what history will remember. As Woody Allen put it: ninety percent of life is just showing up. The other ten percent, perhaps, is leaving. Bill Clinton left Vietnam in a nice plane with a big TV and a wet bar.

The guys with the names on the long black wall had less luxurious arrangements.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2000, James Lileks