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Bush is twisting the facts about that London rally


The president of the United States, the same kinder an gentler one who once urged us all to put Vietnam behind us, has now questioned Bill Clinton's wartime patriotism and, not uncoincidentally, mine.

"I cannot for the life of me understand mobilizing demonstrations and demonstrating against your own country, no matter how strongly you feel, when you are in a foreign land," George Bush declared the other night on Larry King's interview show on CNN.

He was referring to a march against the Vietnam War in 1969, in London's Grosvenor Square, outside the American Embassy.

As it happens, I was one of those demonstrating there.

"Maybe I'm old-fashioned," Bush declared on television, "but to go to a foreign country and demonstrate against your own country when your sons and daughters are dying halfway around the world, I am sorry but I think that is wrong."

Shame on George Bush for saying such things.

Shame on him for rewriting history, and for deliberately twisting people's intentions, and shame on him for trying to save his presidency by reopening wounds that divided this country two decades ago.

The date was November 1969. I was 24 years old and living in England then because, as it had done to millions of people, America had randomly broken my heart. In that bloody era it was the war, and it was the killing of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Chicago police riot, and the torch being burned across the cities.

The war dragged on and on. (Two decades after the fact, I still feel the need to explain: I didn't go because the Army turned me down: a congenitally bad back, OK? It saved me from the fate of friends: some who went, voluntarily or otherwise, one of whom was killed while I was in England.)

Outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, the rally was called the March of Death. George Bush would now have us believe we were demonstrating against America's "sons and daughters . . . dying halfway around the world."

He should know better. The idea was to rouse enough sense of sanity to save those still living, and to mourn for the dead. The president now slanders all who found that war cynical and immoral, and who appealed to the better angels of America's political nature.

Here is what happened at that rally: On a gray, frigid London day, about 1,500 of us filed silently in front of the embassy, where a coffin had been placed. We were handed cards with the names of American servicemen killed in Vietnam. As we reached the coffin, we would place the card inside and announce the name of the deceased.

I still have one of the cards. Its hand-printed letters say: "Franklin B. Williams, Philadelphia." And, above it, stamped in large letters: "DEAD."

We circled the coffin again and again, calling out a new name every time. Each time I was handed a new card, I held my breath: Would there be some kid from Baltimore, some name I knew, somebody more familiar than Franklin B. Williams of Philadelphia, whose name and whose death we were trying to retrieve from anonymity for just a few moments?

George Bush now questions the intent of such a gesture? Before the war would end, about 58,000 Americans would die for reasons no one has yet entirely figured out. Bush is cynical, and maybe even misinformed, if he thinks Americans alive back then do not recall the torment of that time and cannot draw a distinction between honest forms of expression (ours) and echoes of McCarthyism (his).

(For those younger readers who do not know the McCarthy reference, it's enough to say this: He was a U.S. senator whose 1950s smear tactics so revolted the American electorate that we have not seen the likes of it since. Until now.)

Americans who marched at Grosvenor Square on Nov. 15 and 16, 1969, Bill Clinton among them, thought ourselves squarely in the tradition of the American spirit of dissent. We wanted our country to come to its senses.

Bush would have us believe we were perverting our historic freedom of expression by daring to exercise it. He should know better. In fact, he does know better, but he keeps saying these terrible, divisive, misleading things anyway.

If I saw somebody named Bill Clinton that day in Grosvenor Square, I do not remember him -- just as Clinton now claims not to remember some things from back then. It was 23 years ago. You would think, after all this time, we could put that godforsaken war behind us.

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