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updated 2/17/2004 5:05:07 PM ET 2004-02-17T22:05:07

It's kind of amazing how Vietnam won't go away. It was an awful war, an ugly time, and all of it - a decade of staggering death and official deceit - clearly left a scar on the American psyche.

Today, nearly 30 years after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the old rattling bones of that war are quite audible in the current campaign for President.

And this isn't the first time this has happened in recent political history. In 1992, Bill Clinton's successful effort to avoid both the draft and any military service at all including the National Guard became an issue. Amazingly, it didn't hurt him.

What was more astounding was the fact that his duplicity in dealing with his Arkansas draft board was only a minor speed bump on the road to the White House. And he happened to be running against a guy who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, former Sen. Bob Kerrey.

I can still recall standing in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Manchester, N.H., with the late, great Murray Kempton as the results came in on primary night 14 years ago. Kempton read them, shook his head and said: "It's hard to believe that the people of New Hampshire could vote for a draft dodger over a Medal of Honor winner."

Now, in the winter of 2004, another veteran, John Kerry, is rolling toward his party's nomination. And his service record has been a huge plus to his candidacy.

So how come? Why is Vietnam a benefit today when it seemed not to count for much then?

"Three things," Bob Kerrey, now president of New School University, said the other day. "First, John made it happen. He made it work. He pushed it. But the big one is 9/11. That changed everything.

"Bush has been parading around telling us he's a great war President and he's been doing it so often that people decided to ask, 'Okay, what did you do in the war, Daddy?'

"That was the second component. Then you have the third," Bob Kerrey was saying. "Look, it's okay that his father helped him to get in a National Guard unit and that his father helped him to get out of a Guard unit. But context is everything in politics. And it's working against him.

"I thought George Bush was a great commander-in-chief until he refused to go to any funerals ... thank God Karl Rove wasn't an adviser to Lincoln. He never would have gone to Gettysburg. Rove would have told him his poll numbers were down and it wouldn't help move his numbers to talk about the dead."

Bush told Tim Russert on last week's "Meet the Press" that "yes, absolutely," he would release all his National Guard records. Later in the week, the White House switched gears and held back a bit on the President's promise.

That's too bad because the charges leveled by some Democrats - not John Kerry - sound like cheap shots, and making the whole file public should put the matter to rest. After all, the man got an honorable discharge, qualified to fly jets, and if he skipped a few meetings in the last year of his obligation he sure wasn't alone in deciding to duck a weekend or two.

Bob Kerrey is right though: context is everything in politics. And the context of Bush's service 30 years ago is viewed through the present day prism of leading a country at war, sending troops into battle at a perilous moment in this nation's history.

So Vietnam is with us again, a tragic episode in the life of the nation that refuses to permanently retreat into history. And the two principals for the White House in 2004 are handcuffed to it in different ways. One of them can tell us exactly where he was and what he did while the other, a war President, seems to be slowly groping toward complete disclosure over something that shouldn't be quite the issue he has allowed it to become.

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