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Jewish World Review April 24, 2000 / 19 Nissan, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Vietnam 25 -- The good, bad and ugly -- TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after the fall of Vietnam, Americans are studying the ashes.

David Halberstam, whose "Best and the Brightest" showed how the elite led us into the jungle, offers us a tad of optimism. "There's something quite outstanding about America today," he ventured at the Brookings Institution seminar this week.

Could it be that this adventurous, hi-tech economy of ours owes a seedling of its genesis to the brazenly exploratory politics of the anti-war 1960s? That minds liberated by their generation's rebellion have exploded into a revolution every bit as iconoclastic?

Mary McGrory, the liberal columnist so sickened by Vietnam that she has refused for three decades to even watch a movie about it, finds hope in the late presidential campaign of Senator John McCain.

"He made it possible for people who were opposed to the war to look up to him, to admire him and to vote for him."

Halberstam pointed to "a certain nobility" in the way that McCain used the drama of his Vietnam captivity -- not to wedge people apart as Richard Nixon did, but to bring voters of varying views together.

He finds the Democratic party still suffering from its horrid divisions from the Vietnam years. He imagines a giant football stadium where one team led by Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern battles another led by Hubert Humphrey and Henry "Scoop" Jackson with tens of thousands of Republicans cheering from the stands.

"What is the foreign policy of the present administration?" he wonders aloud.

Even in 2000, Halberstam argues, President Bill Clinton is unable to state and execute a clear, explicable American policy toward the world. One reason is the "CNN effect," the ability of voters to see and count the casualties of war 24 hours a day. A dead G.I. is dragged through the streets of Mogadishu with the people back home watching the repellent image.

All this began, Halberstam notes, with the Vietnam conflict, which entered our national consciousness as "the living-room war."

Richard Haas, a national security aide to President Bush, notes another legacy of that war: the termination of the draft and its replacement by an all-volunteer army.

One casualty has been the shared national experience of having been "in the service." Instead of being the great "leveler," Haas argues, military service is now the great divider, separating those who fight from those civilians who commit them to the fight. Presidents now find themselves surrounded by Ivy League-schooled advisers who never fought in war and know they didn't. They and their aides sit across the table from generals dripping in medals who wonder what these over-educated pencil necks know about war.

All things to consider as we commemorate the quarter-century anniversary of an event few of us could have imagined till it actually happened: the collapse of Saigon and, with it, a notion of American power and goodness.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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04/11/00: Men who saved Elián from the sea
04/06/00: Caine should coach politicians
04/03/00: No. 2 spots: Woman-to-woman?
03/29/00: Gray for veep and Gore might coast to victory
03/27/00: The secret life of a CIA wife
03/22/00: 'We're suckers for underdogs'
03/20/00: Bush's California dream vs. reality
03/06/00: Scary Gore vs. hopeful Bush
03/06/00: McCain's appeal to 'Reagan Democrats'
03/01/00: John McCain fits a hero's profile
02/28/00: Grading the American presidents
02/25/00: Clinton remains No. 1 issue
02/23/00: Will Ross Perot aid POW McCain?
02/18/00: McCain faces fury of GOP establishment
02/17/00: Citizen Springer
02/14/00: McCainia and the frisky independents
02/07/00: A prime-time primary for California
02/02/00: Clinton's final campaign: Take the blame
01/31/00: Which GOPer is willing to pay for his positions?
01/27/00: John McCain's gay radar
01/25/00: This time, candidates get 'authenticity' check
01/18/00: AIDS dooms 1 in 4 in tiny Swaziland
01/13/00: Complacency might be the campaign key
01/10/00: A choice, not an echo
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12/17/99: Catch 22: Leading candidates don't lead
12/17/99: New Democratic leader on the horizon
12/15/99: Is Hillary clueless?
12/08/99: Taking Buchananism to the streets
12/03/99: Why are we so obsessed with 'spin'?
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11/29/99: Why AlGore will be our next president
11/23/99: After the fall
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11/15/99: Next president: Male, WASP, self-selected
11/10/99: Backroom Bill
11/08/99: Please don't feed the 'pander bears'
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11/01/99: Pat Buchanan, kamikaze candidate
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10/25/99: The Curse of the Bubba
10/21/99: GOP gives Clinton his finest hour
10/18/99: Clinton's last hurrah
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08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

© 2000, NEA