What Did You Do in the War, Hammer?

“These are the same chicken hawks who vote against defense all the time,” House majority whip (and de facto speaker) Tom “the Hammer” DeLay said last week about the Democrats who support air strikes in Yugoslavia. “Not only is their president getting us in a mess, but he’s undermining our military.” DeLay’s fervid rhetoric carried the day; even though his protégé, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, voted to support the air strikes, the House vote ended in a 213-213 tie, which of course meant that it had withheld support for the air strikes.

What interests Chatterbox here is DeLay’s appropriation of the term “chicken hawk.” DeLay was trying to make it a derisive term for those who support war but oppose large increases in military spending. But, as commonly used, the term actually is intended as an insult to those who dodged the Vietnam draft but favor huge increases in military spending. Along with the term “war wimp,” it neatly summarized the hypocrisy of many baby-boomer conservatives who cheered the Pentagon buildup of the 1980s. (In the definitive piece about this, a 1985 Wall Street Journal story by Jane Mayer, the ever-pragmatic Newt Gingrich said: “Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made.” The other vicarious warmongers dinged in the piece were Richard Burt, George Will, and Richard Perle.)

What did Tom DeLay do during the Vietnam war? “I don’t know. I think he was in college,” his daughter Dani told Chatterbox when he asked her last Friday. DeLay spokesman Mike Scanlon was similarly stumped when Chatterbox asked him Monday. A story by reporter (and Vietnam vet) Guy Gugliotta in today’s Washington Post, however, brings the news that DeLay “received student draft deferments during the Vietnam era and avoided military service through the 1969 lottery,” which presumably means he drew a high number. Apparently DeLay, who was something of a prankster in his early college days, was able to keep his student deferment after he was asked by the dean to sit out a semester at Baylor University, which he attended from 1965 to 1967. Instead of taking the time off, DeLay got married and enrolled at the University of Houston, where he graduated in 1970.

What’s DeLay’s line about sitting out the war? That he was needed for the war at home against earwigs and cockroaches? (Instead of going into the military, he became an exterminator.) DeLay flack Scanlon said he’d get back to Chatterbox, but never did. Specifically, Chatterbox wanted to know if there was any truth to a report in the Houston Press, a rather emphatically anti-DeLay alternative newspaper, about what DeLay said on this subject at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, when vice-presidential nominee Dan Quayle was under attack for having avoided Vietnam service in the National Guard. (The story was repeated in a Molly Ivins profile of DeLay in the May issue of Playboy.) Here’s what the Houston Press reported:

He and Quayle, DeLay explained to the assembled media in New Orleans, were victims of an unusual phenomenon back in the days of the undeclared Southeast Asian war. So many minority youths had volunteered for the well-paying military positions to escape poverty and the ghetto that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like himself. Satisfied with the pronouncement, which dumbfounded more than a few of his listeners who had lived the sixties, DeLay marched off to the convention.

Chatterbox has heard many draft-dodger alibis in his time, but he has never heard anyone plead reverse discrimination.

–Timothy Noah