Richard Nixon was the first in a long line of Republican presidents I have loathed. Partly because I was young and in college at a fraught time in our history, and partly because the man himself was an ass, I and everyone I knew hated him with rare gusto. It was an eastern-megalopolis, out-of-touch-with-Main-Street sort of hatred, but heartfelt nonetheless.
History remembers “Tricky Dick” mostly for the Watergate scandal that brought him down. But his long and cynical prolonging of the Vietnam War — as well as his catastrophic expansion of that war into Cambodia — was the first of many messes made by Republicans that Democrats subsequently had to clean up.
History has also shined a more benign light on some of his accomplishments, which were admittedly significant. He signed off on the creation of the EPA and OSHA. He propped up social security, expanded the food stamp program, extended health insurance for low-income families, and other stuff that today would put him somewhere to the left of Amy Klobuchar.
All of this safety-net legislation required bipartisan cooperation, a phenomenon that now seems almost quaint, like an artefact from some long-dead civilization. Once upon a time, there were actual Republicans who believed in that stuff. It’s true, I swear.
But for me, and for the college kids I knew then, Nixon was the guy in charge of the draft — the dreaded Selective Service System — which held all our futures hostage.
On our campus outside Boston, we were all terrified of going to Vietnam. We all had student deferments (“2-S Deferments,” in the language of the time), and as long as we could stay in school — as long as our parents could pay to keep us in school — we would not be drafted. It was a privilege, and most of us knew it. But we also knew that graduation loomed, almost as a death knell.
When we were nineteen years old, all the men were subjected to the first nationwide draft lottery. Every birth date was drawn, all 366 of them, from a rotating drum on national television. The first third would almost certainly be drafted into the Army. The last third almost certainly would not. The middle third could go either way.
My birthday came up 104th. The first third. I was screwed.
This sword hung over my head well into my senior year. All my options were bad: I could be drafted and go into the Army for two years. Or enlist in some other branch of the military, but that was for three years. Or obtain a medical deferment for some ailment — real or fake — that some doctor might sign off on (remember Trump’s bone spurs?). Or leave the country for good. Or, oh yes, go to jail.
As graduation closed in on me, the weighing of these dismal options became the background hum of my life. Even so, it must have been an exercise in denial, because I don’t remember obsessing over it. I just put it out of my mind whenever I could — a practice I have perfected since.
But then, from nowhere, Nixon did me a huge favor.
He ended the draft. Just like that. Just short of graduation. The all-volunteer military was born just in time for me not to volunteer.
Yes, Nixon did this for the wrong reasons, political as opposed to humanitarian. Yes, the war kept going for several more years, chewing up humans in unconscionable numbers. But I, personally, was free to move on.
I realize now that this was an inflection point in my life, a crucial decision I, strangely, never had to make. I’ve often wondered what that decision would have been. And in which directions it might have sent me.
What if I’d gone into the military, either by draft or enlistment? I’m guessing I would have found a way to function, barely, in a combat environment. But I really didn’t want to find out. The Army and I would not have been a good fit — I've never felt the urge to "test myself" in combat — and to this day it’s an experience I am thrilled to have missed.
Many in my age group fled to Canada. Unlike most of them, my family actually had property in Canada, with a cabin that probably could have been winterized. So that was a possibility, though the idea of never coming home made me queasy. (Several years later, Jimmy Carter declared an amnesty for those who fled, but at the time it seemed a one-way ticket).
Also unlike many of my peers — whose parents misread their visceral aversion to the war as a shameful lack of patriotism — mine were firmly anti-war. My father had been to war. He’d seen things no twenty-year-old should ever have to see, and he had nothing good to say about it. He almost never discussed it, which I’ve since learned was typical of that “greatest” generation. And while he came home unharmed, at least physically, I’m quite sure he carried the emotional scars his whole life. He was deeply offended by war in general, and by “Nixon’s War” in particular. I believe he would have gone to great lengths to shield me from it.
But it never came to that. Nixon got me off the hook. It was the first time an American president held my life in his hands. I’d like to think it was the last.