John Kerry’s selection of John Edwards to be his running mate marks an important threshold in American history. In Edwards, we can glimpse an end to years of class warfare—or rather, class warfare of a certain kind. Edwards’ epoch-making role is a simple matter of chronology. He is the first national-ticket candidate to be too young to have to explain whether he joined up or evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.
Edwards was born on June 10, 1953. That put him in the Vietnam draft lottery of Feb. 2, 1972, when Edwards was a sophomore at North Carolina State University. (Like a great many college students, he opposed the war.) The lottery ranked individuals according to their birth date; Edwards drew 178, which was reasonably “good,” i.e., high, reducing the likelihood he would be called up. (The highest number called during the previous year had been 95.) In any event, Edwards’ lottery number didn’t even matter, because nobody in the 1972 lottery was ever called up. The war was winding down and draft resistance had become an enormous headache for the Pentagon. In 1973, it scotched the draft altogether and instituted the All Volunteer Army. Unimpeded by any Vietnam-related moral or legal dilemmas, Edwards graduated from North Carolina State in the spring of 1974 and enrolled at the University of North Carolina Law School in the fall.
During the primaries, Kerry cracked, “When I came home from Vietnam in 1969, I don’t know if John Edwards was out of diapers.” Kerry immediately regretted (or professed to regret) this swipe at Edwards’ comparative youth and inexperience in government. He even phoned Edwards to apologize. But take it from Chatterbox, five years Edwards’ junior (and therefore 15 when the draft ended). Diapers were a very good place to be. Missing Woodstock was a small price to be free from the risk that your government would make you fight a senseless war, or the certainty that if you managed to wiggle out of it, someone less privileged would take your place.
One might conceivably fault Edwards for failing to enlist voluntarily on his 18th birthday in 1971, but the notion that anybody—much less an opponent of the Vietnam War like Edwards—had a “duty to enlist” is so unreasonable that Chatterbox has never heard it voiced. Edwards, at any rate, was no pampered child of privilege. He was (as he’s stated repeatedly) the son of a millworker, and the first in his family to attend college. For all practical purposes, then, Edwards has no Vietnam-era choice to defend (as Bush must) or flaunt (as Kerry does). It’s a complete nonissue.
Edwards’ youth doesn’t mark the end of political warfare over what someone on the presidential ticket did during the Vietnam War, nor even, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the beginning of the end. But it does give us a glimmer of what awaits us in a decade or so, when nobody running for president will have to explain his Vietnam strategy. The battles over Vietnam service, or lack thereof, have been necessary, but wearying. They began in the summer of 1988, when President George H.W. Bush chose as his running mate Dan Quayle, who was born to wealth and, memorably, explained his decision to join the National Guard thusly: “My desire was to go on to law school as soon as possible, so the National Guard allowed me to go to active duty for six months.” They continued in 1992 with the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, who in 1969 wrote a famously smarmy letter from Oxford to an ROTC colonel reneging on his previous pledge to join, on the strength of which Clinton had received a draft deferment. Clinton took additional lumps in 1996, when his opponent was disabled World War II hero Bob Dole. (Dole’s running mate, Jack Kemp, was too old by a hair for Vietnam, having earlier avoided the peacetime draft by joining the Army Reserve.) The 2000 election marked the first time a Vietnam veteran (Al Gore) was a major-party presidential nominee. He lost to President Bush, whose service in the Air National Guard was marked by long absences, and Dick Cheney, who had “other priorities in the ‘60s than military service” and gamed the deferment system in various ways. In 2004, Bush faces John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who actually killed people during the war and repeatedly risked being killed himself.
The character issues raised in the Great Vietnam-Service Debate have been important, and they’re extremely rich in drama. They cannot be ignored. But they’ve also been trying, because they have forced us to relive an unpleasant and divisive time in our recent history. With Edwards’ elevation to the national ticket, we get a brief taste of what life will be like when we don’t have to relive it anymore. Yum.