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Wanted for pandering: President William J. Clinton. No, not philandering, pandering. The latest incident: doling out money to veterans allegedly suffering from the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange, in order to shore up his political support among a group that has understandably come to loathe him.
Clinton had a PR problem with the military even before he became president. When almost three million of America’s sons and daughters served their country in Vietnam, he was dodging the draft and figuring out a way to smoke marijuana without inhaling. As president, he had barely taken the oath of office when he ordered that homosexuals be openly allowed in the military. And now, the greatest insult, his lawyer has declared him an active duty serviceman in order to postpone Paula Jones’s suit against him.
So with the election just five months off and his opponent a true war hero, Clinton decided to open the government coffers to a number of Vietnam vets by providing compensation for those who have suffered from a rare nerve disease called peripheral neuropathy, who contract prostate cancer, or have babies born with spina bifida.
The Veterans’ Administration has estimated the five-year cost of this largesse at $350 million, which of course is too low because early estimates always are. In any case, because prostate cancer is the most common malignant tumor in men (about one in ten will eventually contract it) and because Vietnam vets are only now starting to reach the age where it becomes a major threat, the cost of this giveaway will surely reach many billions of dollars.
This might be fair if there were scientific evidence that these problems were really being caused by Agent Orange. But there is not.
Those who were exposed to the very highest levels — the men of "Operation Ranchhand" who actually sprayed it — have been intensely studied for years. They have shown no more cancers, and their children no more birth defects, people with no dioxin or Agent Orange exposure.
Thus, one of the Ranchhand researchers told a House committee in April, "The accumulated evidence does not establish that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between herbicide exposure and spina bifida."
So where does President Clinton get off on saying there is a connection?
Chelsea: "What did you do during the war, daddy?"
His support comes from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, which is an update of an earlier report previously used to grant compensation to veterans suffering other diseases such as Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and certain respiratory cancers.
IOM is an arm of the non-governmental National Academy of Sciences. Congress asked the group to look into Agent Orange after Congress’s own Office of Technology Assessment repeatedly found that very few ground troops were ever exposed to the herbicide and that no vets or their offspring had been shown to suffer health effects from it.
Both IOM studies used methodology that was anything but scientific. They largely ignored the volumes of data that showed no link between Agent Orange and health effects — the Ranchhander findings — and instead looked at studies of Swedish and Dutch herbicide applicators, and the like.
"Any study of anybody anywhere in the world with exposure to herbicides was used by IOM," explains Michael Gough, director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute, a former chairman of the Ranchhand Advisory Committee, and author of the book Dioxin, Agent Orange.
One problem: None of these people were exposed to Agent Orange, but rather to other types of herbicides, many of which didn’t even contain dioxin.
Moreover, the studies themselves consistently contradicted each other. One might find an excess of lung cancer but not of Hodgkin’s disease. Another would find an excess of Hodgkin’s disease but not of lung cancer.
Ignoring such inconvenient facts, the IOM — well aware that it was working under political parameters and not scientific ones — seized on the slightest excuses to indict the herbicides even when the evidence weighed heavily on the other side.
For example, their 1993 report listed 28 studies which looked for prostate cancer among persons exposed to herbicide. Of these, three were positive (that is, they found a statistically significant increase), one was significantly negative, and 24 didn’t go either way. Bingo! Herbicides cause prostate cancer. Agent Orange is an herbicide. Ergo, Agent Orange causes prostate cancer!
"It’s unbelievably bad what the IOM did," says Gough. "I think one of the major costs of something like this is that all the scientists, government and nongovernment, who have done their best to understand and explain the health of veterans are now discredited."
Thus, he says, it also bodes ill for getting the truth out on Gulf War Syndrome, another alleged disease phenomenon that has more to do with politics than science.
Ultimately, it is the vets themselves who will lose the most. Yes, some will get money, if they contract the right diseases. But at the same time, they’re being needlessly terrified.
How many vets will now refuse to have babies because they’re afraid they will be born with birth defects? How many will spend the next few decades agonizing that because of their Vietnam service they are far more likely to contract prostate cancer, a terrible illness to get even if you survive it?
Once again, Clinton has shown himself the enemy of the military. And it’s when he’s making a show of being compassionate that he does the most damage.