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Debate

Bush takes on DC about dope, draft

Guest author

Pauline Gore was so gung-ho about her son’s anti-Vietnam War views that she was ready to head to Canada with him. Barbara Bush is so angry about the press’s hammering of her son’s possible cocaine use that she’s hitting the airwaves to demand “Enough!”

So both these fellows, Al Gore and George W. Bush, have tough mothers. The query facing voters is what kind of characters they themselves were back in the late 1960s the era when both these boomers became men. How did these two fellows, similar in so many ways, stand up to the dangers and allures of the nation’s turbulent coming-of-age?

Let’s start with the front-runner.

George W. says he has not used cocaine beyond the age of 28. If he didn’t consume the illegal drug prior to that time, his careful denials make no sense whatsoever.

A hawk on the Vietnam War, the Texas governor joined the Air National Guard when he graduated from Yale, a step that kept him from the fighting.

When he ran for the presidency the first time in 1988, Al Gore admitted to past use of marijuana but said that he quit smoking dope at the age of 25.

A dove on the war, Gore nonetheless enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1970 and served a tour in Vietnam. In his recent biography of the vice president, with is often critical of Gore, author Bob Zelnick gives his subject ample credit for this service.

“Without question, Gore spent plenty of time in the field. While not nearly as dangerous as the activity of the grunts, it was a decent and honorable way for him to discharge his obligation to this country during a period of great domestic disturbance and moral ambiguity. It was also far more dangerous than the post-graduate courses and ‘essential’ jobs to which flocked many future hard-liners whose reverence for interventionist military policies would grow in direct proportion to their personal distance from the threat of military service.”

Placing these two ’60s portraits side-by-side, we get an interesting comparison.

On the right is the charming, gregarious Bush who avoided the generational militancy of the ’60s, who backed the war but felt no urge to fight in it, who may have enjoyed the pleasures of the counter-culture but not its intellectual ferment or political revolt.

On the left is the socially reserved Gore who accepted service in a war he and his peers detested, who smoked dope but also exposed his young mind to the issues of his new generation from environmental protection to Pentagon reform.

As a member of the same generation as this pair, I find the picture of George W. Bush the more familiar, if hardly the more attractive.

“I would have gone,” Bush told a Washington Post reporter, had his National Guard unit been called up for action in Vietnam. But it’s hard to give three cheers to a certified hawk, a young and committed backer of the war, for grabbing for a billet in the well-recognized safety of the home guard.

The same goes for the drug question. I’ll admit to a ’60s’ bias here. There’ll be a lot more issues ahead in the 2000 choice, but I like that young fellow, Al Gore, who dug deeply into the political and cultural excitement of that great decade, and not just the dope. (Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner’s Washington Bureau, is host of “Hardball” on CNBC cable channels. Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)