Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Presidents and Military Service

If you asked someone to describe the duties of the President of the United States, no doubt one of the phrases you would hear is “commander in chief”.  The role of the President as commander of the military forces is one of the most important roles of the office. Given the importance of the “commander” role you might expect we look for military service when selecting Presidents.  
President Eisenhower was a bona fide war hero for his role in World War II. President Kennedy gained fame for his naval career from his biography in PT-109. Both those Presidents, one from each party, served the U.S. Military during conflict and gained fame and popularity. But since Kennedy’s election in 1960 our selection of President has taken a different path. Johnson and Nixon were known for political, not military achievements. Ford never won an election and Carter was viewed as a pacifist and political outsider who was elected in response to the Watergate scandal. Reagan was famous as an actor and governor. Only George H.W. Bush was known for military service, having been a fighter pilot in World War II. Clinton avoided service in Viet Nam and protested against the war while in England. George W. Bush used every means available to him to avoid service during the war and spent some time in the Nation Guard on stateside duty, where he may or may not have partied more than he served the military. Finally, President Obama came of age after the Vietnam War and did not face the dilemma about service that Clinton and Bush faced.
By my count eleven of the past twelve elections have been won by a candidate with little to no military background. For nearly half a century the voting public has decided military service is not a mandatory requirement to hold the office of President. But, of course, we have elected many Presidents without a military background. Washington and Lincoln are probably the two most beloved Presidents; one was a General and one was a country lawyer.  Teddy Roosevelt was a war hero, Franklin Roosevelt was a Governor. Military service has probably never been a requirement in the minds of the voting public. But what I find most interesting about the very recent past is not who won the election, but who lost. Let’s look at the last five “runners up” in Presidential elections because there may be something different at work now as compared to previous elections.
1992 – George H.W. Bush. Decorated World War II veteran. Lost to Clinton despite an aggressive campaign to portray him as a draft dodger. Clinton used some influence to avoid military service and actively protested American military involvement while he was a student in London.
1996 – Robert Dole. Decorated World War II veteran, suffered critical, life-threatening injuries in invasion of Italy. Lost to Clinton.
2000 – Al Gore. Enlisted in Army despite having some political pull – his father was a sitting U.S. Senator. Gore spent approximately five months in Viet Nam in an engineering company working as a journalist. His record sparkles by comparison with his opponent, George W. Bush, who used his political pull to avoid any and all overseas service.
2004 – John Kerry. Decorated Viet Nam War veteran with a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and 3 Purple Hearts. His military record was vigorously attacked to the point it became a liability during the campaign (remember the swiftboat controversy?) Again, his opponent actively avoided service.
2008 - John McCain. Military POW and decorated veteran. He survived years of torture at the infamous Hanoi Hilton before returning home and beginning his political career.
For the past five elections the American public has elected a person with no military exploits (other than George W. Bush’s stateside Guard duty). In each case the losing candidate had a military track record and three of those candidates wee combat wounded (Dole, Kerry, McCain). Gore has the least impressive military resume of the five, but it still stronger than any of the three winning candidates during the same time frame. In fact, it could have been a compelling campaign angle – son of privilege from an Ivy League school who enlisted and served a tour of duty in Viet Nam against a son of privilege from an Ivy League school who pulled strings and did not serve overseas.
I do not know what it means that we, as voters, have made this series of five straight choices for our “Commander in Chief”. I find it very interesting, especially since it has crossed party lines. Clinton was a draft dodger who defeated two republic candidates with strong military backgrounds. Bush was a draft dodger who defeated two Democrats with strong military backgrounds.  It does not appear to be a party issue, just an unusual one. One thing appears certain, however, the streak will end in 2012. Neither Obama nor any of the major republican candidates have strong military backgrounds.

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