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MCNAMARA'S BOOK IS PROOF WAR HASN'T BEEN PUT TO REST

THANKS TO Robert S. McNamara's confessional now on the book stands, the Vietnam War has returned, dividing us and angering us all over again.

It's not all McNamara's fault. Obviously, this country hasn't put this war to rest yet. No matter how many peace treaties are signed between those who fought and those who evaded serving in this war, between those who supported it and those who resisted, Vietnam still has the potential to inflame.We want to talk about this subject some more. President Clinton, in particular, does. When asked for comment, he said his own position as a student opposing the draft was vindicated by McNamara's book acknowledging the war was a mistake.

But at his news conference Tuesday night, the president seemed to have thought a bit more about what he should be saying. McNamara's book shouldn't be permitted to divide the country, he said, and we should "learn from our mistakes and go forward together."

Clinton may be backing off his own earlier remarks, but not his Health and Human Services secretary, Donna Shalala. In a televison appearance over the weekend, she declared: "We sent not the best and brightest sons to Vietnam."

She has given two explanations. One was on the program - CNN's "Capital Gang" last weekend - in which she explained that young men "from small towns and rural areas" and "neighborhoods I grew up in" had to serve in Vietnam, while "we exempted the children of the wealthy and the privileged."

To paraphrase Woody Hayes on the forward pass, there are three things that can happen with a statement like that - and all of them are bad.

The first is that the American Legion will take offense on behalf of Vietnam veterans, which it did.

The second is that people will be reminded that bright and gifted people did serve in Vietnam, such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, both of whom are now Democratic senators, and Vice President Albert Gore.

The ranks of the exempted, they likely also will remember, included Shalala's boss, William Jefferson Clinton.

The third bad thing that can happen with a statement like that is that you have to write a second statement explaining what you meant by the first.

Shalala wrote a letter to the American Legion saying she meant no offense to Vietnam veterans. Her point, she said, was that the burden of the fighting "fell disproportionately on poor and middle-income families" and "the sons of the so-called best and brightest were never called."

One of the problems with this administration virtually since opening day has been a lack of discipline.

As a re-election campaign approaches, there is not much sign that political exigencies will impose caution and restraint on what members of the administration say and do - including the president.

Shalala had some things to say about Vietnam that she wanted to get off her chest, and so she did. The least of her considerations seemed to be whether it would help Clinton's recovery from the political sickness that has engulfed him since late last year.

But Clinton doesn't seem to be setting much of an example. There isn't anything about the Vietnam War - McNamara's book included - that is going to do Clinton any good. It may not do him harm. It was the dominant issue of the '60s. This is the '90s.

But there isn't any vindication for anyone in this subject. There is only the Wall.