When politicians talk in private, they regularly use a cruel shorthand. For example, a candidate who is uninformed, unreflective and uncurious is often branded a “lightweight,” as in, “He is so lightweight he could tap-dance on a souffle.” Conversely, a “heavyweight” would be a politician of some substance, some political clout and personal gravity.
Al Gore – the Democratic presidential nominee who won 543,895 more votes than George W. Bush in 2000 but ended up losing the election in a 5-4 Supreme Court split decision – was regularly dismissed for being so unexciting that his favorite color was beige. The line at the time was, “Al Gore is so dull that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.”
That was cute but inaccurate. I once asked then-Sen. Gore of Tennessee why he – almost alone among his Harvard 1969 classmates – volunteered to join the U.S. Army to go to Vietnam. Gore’s answer was revealing: “I come from a small town (Carthage) of 3,000 people. I concluded that if I didn’t go, somebody else would have to go. And I knew just about everybody else who was going to have to go in my place...For me, that sort of reinforces the sense of community and nation that is at the root of why you have a duty to serve your country.”
Gore also knew Charles Holland, Walter Pope, James Stallings, Jackie Underwood and Roy Wills. Like Gore, all five came from Smith County, Tennessee. Their names can today be found on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a place Al Gore visited.
What brought this all to mind was the television interview President Donald Trump did with Piers Morgan of “Good Morning Britain” during his D-Day trip. Asked about his own avoidance of military service during the U.S. war in Vietnam, Trump answered: “Well, I was never a big fan of that war, I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was a terrible war. I thought it was very far away.” Trump added, “At that time, nobody had ever heard of the country.”
Trump was referring to the summer of 1968, when he, as a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, had just lost his student deferment from his country’s military draft. There are only two possible explanations for what he said: Either, now in his eighth decade, he is losing his memory, or he really is a compulsive liar.
Take the manifest untruth “at that time, nobody had ever heard of the country.” In 1968, there were 540,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam. May, graduation month, was the deadliest month of the entire war; 2,403 Americans lost their lives. That year, the American death toll reached 30,857 in the war, which became the longest in American history while “nobody had ever heard of the country.”
Both of President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters’ husbands were fighting in Vietnam. There were 221 major student demonstrations against the war on 101 campuses. Columbia University was closed by anti-war protests. Johnson, facing serious anti-war challengers in his own party, announced he would not seek renomination. All this occurred while “nobody had ever heard of the country” where Americans were fighting that long, divisive war. President Trump’s trousers are combustible.
Herodotus, the Greek historian, was right, as we are forced, 25 centuries later, to learn again: “Character is destiny.”