Peter Baker makes a useful and instructive point in this morning’s Washington Post:
With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), none of the front-running White House contenders served in the military. Unless McCain rebounds from his political collapse, it looks as if next year’s presidential election will be the first since World War II in which neither of the major-party nominees is a veteran….
There was a time when military service was almost a prerequisite for public office. Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W.Bush served. But since the end of the Cold War, the country’s leadership has come more and more from the exclusively civilian world.
Britain made that shift as early as 1963.
Malcolm was going to suggest Harold Wilson as the first modern civilian Prime Minister. Wilson volunteered at the outbreak of War, but served as a statistician and manager in the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In fact, though, Alec Douglas Home set the precedent: he was too young for the First Unpleasantness (born in 1903), and a bout of TB kept him out of the Second.
Of course, Ted Heath (an artilleryman, and so entitled to wear a lieutenant-colonel’s uniform) and Jim Callaghan (Lieutenant in the Navy) had war service. In passing, one of the few juicy bits of Heath’s autobiography was the confession that he had commanded a firing squad, to execute a Polish serviceman convicted of murder and rape.
The end of conscription in Britain and of the Draft in the US mean that military service is no longer the norm for electors and elected. Clinton was able to buck the trend as early as 1992, as was his contemporary, Josiah Bartlet
Malcolm briefly wonders whether the rhetoric associated with military service might, just might have been one of the poisons that have infected the present Presidency. A kind of psychological compensation, perhaps. Al Gore, although opposed to the war, went to Vietnam and served five months with the Engineers: that made Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard a prickly comparison. Come 2004, Karl Rove went to work and did a job on John Kerry’s Swiftboat service: thrice armed is he who gets his retaliation in first.
The cadre around Bush have a curious quasi-military background. Bush’s own semi-detachment from things military is well attested. Dick Cheney may have been Bush I’s Secretary of Defense, directing operations in Panama and Desert Storm, but he also succeeded in getting his Draft to Vietnam deferred five times, and then was exempted for “hardship”. Rumsfeld served as a Navy flyer, and continued in the Reserve, until he retired as a Captain in 1989. Karl Rove was another who used deferments to avoid the Draft. Ironically, the least gung-ho member of Bush II’s first Administration was Colin Powell, the one personage with real military experience.
The American public, themselves less likely to have military experience, increasingly do not demand it of their public representatives. As Baker points out, at the end of his piece:
In 1991 … 68 percent of the Senate and 48 percent of the House had served in the military. Today, according to the Military Officers Association of America, it’s 29 percent of the upper chamber and 23 percent of the lower chamber. Among defeated or retiring incumbents last year, twice as many had served as the freshmen replacing them.
The main beneficiaries of this shift in public mood (and quelling of the testosterone) will be Hillary Clinton and other women seeking Office. The other side of the coin is the fall-out from the Iraq mess: is it not curious how Condi Rice, frequently touted back in 2000 and 2004 as a possible future contender, is out of the running?