Washington -- IT HAS BEEN 20 years since choppers lifted the last U.S. troops from Saigon's rooftops. It was our longest war, the only one we lost, and it clutches our emotions like a steel trap.
Now Bill Clinton, of all presidents, will officially end the Vietnam War.
It's as mind-bending as commie-hater Richard Nixon going to China.
When Mr. Clinton announced in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday that he is normalizing relations with Vietnam, no one could overlook the blazing irony -- Mr. Clinton's closing a war he despised and ducked.
Certainly not Republican hawks fuming that Mr. Clinton has been duped by the Vietnamese and manipulated by businessmen who'd peddle Chevrolets and Coca-Cola in Ho Chi Minh City.
Certainly not by families of some still missing in Vietnam who say that Mr. Clinton's abandoning 1,618 GIs missing after The Longest War.
I understand the bitterness. Vietnam was a class war. The poor, degraded as "grunts," were sent to fight in rice paddies. The rich or well-connected could hire lawyers, rig the system, stay in school. Mr. Clinton, safe at Oxford, is a symbol of his class.
Despite the fury of anti-Vietnam hawks, POW/MIA families and 3 million American Legionnaires, Mr. Clinton's doing the right thing. History moves on. Now -- more irony -- we need Vietnam as a counter against China. Can't forever hold resentment and tears of The Lost War.
Sure, Mr. Clinton's taking flak. Better to take an unpopular rap now, though, than in an election year.
And Mr. Clinton has gotten very, very lucky.
He had stocky, serene Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 55, standing resolutely beside him in the East Room.
I doubt they've ever agreed on anything. Mr. McCain and the Democratic, war-evading president are fire and gasoline. But in this battle, Mr. McCain is Mr. Clinton's wingman, flying political cover.
"It's time to close the chapter, heal the wounds, stop the emotionalism," Mr. McCain says.
His stand enrages Republican pals, older veterans and men who shared his "Hanoi Hilton" cell. But no critic dares question Mr. McCain's credentials.
He was 27 when his Skyhawk was shot down near Hanoi, the ejection breaking his right knee and both arms. An angry mob bayoneted his groin and ankle, smashed him with rifle butts.
No American was shoved into Hoa Lo Central Prison in rougher shape.
Mr. McCain would have died. But his Vietnamese captors, discovering he was the son of Adm. John Sidney McCain Jr., saved him as bargaining bait. When he refused early release, though, Mr. McCain was tortured until confessing "war crimes."
His body has the scars of 5 1/2 years of brutality. "If I ran into certain Vietnamese," he says softly, "I might react physically." But his serenity is amazing. He has returned to Vietnam a dozen times since the war ended.
If John McCain joins Bill Clinton to say the war's over, who's to disagree? Well, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. Nothing dramatizes NTC the Vietnam argument like the split between these ex-POWs who shared a concrete cell floor.
Mr. Johnson's Phantom jet was shot down a year before Mr. McCain's crash. His shoulder and arm were smashed, back cracked. Vietnamese captors beat him constantly, yanking a dislocated shoulder from its socket, re-breaking his arm.
"I couldn't believe a body could endure such excruciating pain and remain conscious," Mr. Johnson wrote in a 1992 book.
Sam Johnson couldn't imagine standing by Bill Clinton when he ended the war. He says Messrs. Clinton and McCain are flat wrong.
"John thinks the Vietnamese have changed. I don't," Mr. Johnson told the Washington Post. "They always lied to us, and they're still lying to us."
He's not alone. Unrepentant hawks who bash Bill Clinton's decision insist the Vietnamese are still jerking the United States around on missing servicemen.
"This triple draft evader and dodger plays into the hands of war criminals who hide the truth about 2,000 POWs and MIAs," bellows Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif.
Never mind that the Pentagon lists only 55 "high priority" unresolved MIA cases. A report by 13 senators refuted reports of live Americans in Vietnam. If World War II produced 78,000 missing servicemen and Korea 8,000, why endless suspicion about Vietnam?
Icily, Mr. McCain says: "Gramm [whose campaign he supports] didn't serve. Dole served in a war that ended. I wish he'd let us end this one."
But Mr. McCain's a Republican pariah. "They see me as the 'Manchurian Candidate,' " he says. "The personal attacks are intense."
Mr. Clinton couldn't have a tougher wingman. The dark gash of the Vietnam Wall and its 58,000 names will always be there. So will John McCain's scars.
But history won't wait for tears. Mr. Clinton -- yes, even Bill Clinton -- is right to close the The Longest War.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.