Must a candidate for President of the United States have active duty military experience, preferably in combat, in order to be a qualified commander-in-chief?
That argument is being floated by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who is struggling to find a way to stop the juggernaut of his fellow liberal New Englander, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in their race for the White House.
Of the nine Democrats now actively seeking the presidency, only Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have served in the military – Kerry in the Navy and Clark in the Army. Both are decorated veterans of the Vietnam War; both genuine heroes wounded in battle in the only war the United States ever lost.
During a recent debate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman took Kerry to task for voting for the war, then flip-flopping by vowing to vote against the financial support needed to support the troops in the field. Kerry’s response was a condescending one: “Well, Joe, I have seared into me experiences that you don’t have…that of being one of those troops on the front lines.”
Clark’s meteoric rise in the polls, followed immediately by his inability to define himself to a very left-leaning constituency of primary-season Democrats, has stalled his campaign like a bad Roman Candle in mid-fizzle. Initially compared to the last general-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower, Clark has learned very quickly that the American people can distinguish the difference between the man who saved the world from Fascism and the conqueror of Kosovo. Yet, in this post-9/11 world, Clark is compelled to talk about his military experience at every campaign stop.
Of America’s 43 presidents, 25 have served in the military. Four were generals: Washington, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower. Every president for 50 years – except Ford and Clinton – was a veteran of World War II. Former Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP nominee for president in 1996, is a crippled American hero of that war. He was also the last presidential candidate of his generation.
A radical shift has also occurred in Congress in the last 25 years. In the late 1970s, nearly 80 percent of those serving in the House and Senate were veterans. Today, that figure is approximately 30 percent.
Yet, can we really say that military service is necessary for a successful presidency? Jimmy Carter was a United States Naval officer. He was also one of our most dazed and confused presidents when it came to his use of the military. Conversely, Bill Clinton dodged the draft to stay out of the Vietnam War, and he, too, had no idea how to command.
Franklin Roosevelt never served in uniform, but Harry Truman, his last vice president, did. Between the two of them, they oversaw the execution and completion of the Second World War.
Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all served during World War II. Yet, from 1959 to 1975, a period that span all four of their presidencies, 58,000 Americans died in the jungles of Vietnam because of miscalculation and incompetence at the top of the chain of command.
Are Kerry or Clark more qualified for the presidency than their Democrat peers, simply by virtue of having worn the uniform? Are they more qualified than the current commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, who flew fighter jets on weekends in the Texas National Guard during America’s most unpopular war? The answer is no, because ideology and worldview, not simply experience, are what qualify a person for the presidency.
John Kerry and Wesley Clark were military heroes at a time when it was extremely unpopular even to wear the uniform. Yet, they are unqualified to be president, not because either lacks direct military experience or the courage to fight in battle, but rather because they both lack the conviction to stand up to the forces of appeasement that dominate their political party and tell them that America is at war and her sovereignty must be defended at all costs.
Doug Patton is a freelance columnist who has served as a political speechwriter and public policy advisor at the federal, state and local levels. His weekly columns can be read in newspapers across the country, and on www.GOPUSA.com, where he serves as the Nebraska Editor. He also writes for Talon News Service (www.TalonNews.com). Readers can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.