As recently as the American boyhoods of John Kerry, John McCain and George W. Bush, it was nearly impossible to think of becoming president without going through the ritual of combat.
World War II vets threw down a gauntlet that members of the succeedinggeneration couldn'thope to wieldunlessthey donned uniforms and picked up rifles. But the motif of warrior as leader goes back most vividly andfoundationally to Washington.
The general on horseback myth worked so well and the country's early talent pool tested in war went so deep, few men thereafter couldvie forthechair of presidential powerwithout showing battle stripes. From the country's founding all the way up to 1908, only the elections of 1800 (Adams v. Jefferson) and1844 (Polk v. Clay) failed to feature war hero candidacies.
Tantalized by the prospect of stepping into thebrand new boots of America's version of Augustus, John "no war record on the resume" Adams would end up drinking bitterlyfrom the nation's cup of post-Washington blues as the second president failedto stir the same kind of martial pride in the hearts of his countrymen.
Adams'unabashed eggheadedessin the White House doomed several generations ofwould-be morally courageous leadersto thetank treadof history, including Adlai Stevenson, Fitz Mondale and, of course,Mike Dukakis.
There have been notable exceptions. Madison and later Lincoln bucked the warrior trend with non-combat service records.But the presence of both men in the White House summoned stern if unsuccessful war hero candidates from the other side (General Pinckney against Madison in 1808 and General McClellan against Lincoln 1864). Of course, bothMadison and Lincoln would stare down those challenges and preside over wars thatfortified the country with sprawling stables of war-tested presidents, from generals Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylorto U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfieldand beyond.
Mars in buckskins with presidential aspirations, Teddy Roosevelt shined up his combat boots for a last charge in the Spanish Civil War beforetherearrived the country's first real lull of combat veterans in the White House as the Civil War vets aged and died off. From 1908 through FDR, civilians ruled. But the drums sounded again and WWIIstockeda mid-century's worth ofcommanders-in-chief.
In the thick of the Cold War,voters went from war hero Truman to war hero Ike right to war hero Kennedy. Johnson had Silver Star credentials, and while Nixon was an ice cream soldier in WWII, he was still in the Pacific when it counted, and anyway Ford and Carteroffered Navy combat and Navy sub service respectively. Then came Reagan, who was no war vet, but whoembodied in the Oval Officethat samehero whom two generations of Kubrick-fried moviegoers had enjoyed in the posture of submariner, cowboy, cavalryman, football star and all purpose uniformed he-man.
When the country floundered back into reality and glimpsed theAmerican underbellyof Oliver "Vietnam-Central America-Iran" North,an uneasy electorate re-asserted the presence of combat flyer George Herbert Walker Bush, who was adequately absorbed into a compelling and comforting – if aging -WWII mythology.
Sensing thewarrior spiritsputtering in what to old guard Republicans was the moral turpitudeofcivilian Bill Clinton, WW II hero Bob Dole tried torev upthe iconography of physical courage, only to loseas the countryappeared to besustaining another period of peace.
Confounded by mixed metaphor candidatesin 2000, theSupreme Courtwent withNational Guardster Bush II over pencil-toting warrior Gore. But early, Bush awakened Baby Boomer outrage – among the hipsters who'd rejected the war and had to sit in class with non-combattrue believerslike Bush, and among stout warriors like James Webb, who'd come home from Nam and sat at too many bars flanked by the loud-mouthed likes of Clinton and Bush.
Republicans tried to depict the younger Bush as tough on terror as the country entered another war epoch, but there was no record to back up the man, and into that increasingly nervous breachemerged the Ike-like General Wesley Clark, andthree-purple hearted Kerry.
Clark promptly imploded, leaving Kerry to snapoff a reassuring salute in his convention debut. Packaged as a war hero in the vein of those dead-ahead WWII dog soldiers who populated the books ofStephen AmbroseandTom Brokaw and the pining-for-war Speilberg pic "Saving PrivateRyan,"Kerry nevertheless -like Vietnam – was a strangely tortured contradiction.He was for the war, then against it. Twice. First in Vietnam and then in Iraq. It was too complicated a chord change forthe Toby Keith-wired culture of post 9-11 America that sought John Wayne in vain and settled for Bush II.
Now it's three years later andin the face ofthe civiliantriumvirates of Obama-Edwards-Clinton II in the Democratic Party, and Giuliani-Romney-Huckabee in the GOP, here comes theself-described "No Surrender" candidacy of McCain, a ravaged, 70-year old, leather-jacket-wearing icon who's riding the war hero arc all the way back to Ike, Grant, and Washington.
"I released my bomb, and I was hit by a surface to air missile,"the Arizona senatorand Vietnam War veteran says in an ad against a backdrop of black-and-white pictures of himself in combat and as a POW, with the word DUTYflashing intoan American consciousness now frazzled by five years of warwith no credible skipper on deck.
This week, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean stood beside McCain in Boston and declaredhim to be the best choice for president on national security grounds. "In the history of our nation," said Kean, "a mere handful of senators have exerted a greater influence over free men and free women than even some presidents of the United States. John McCain has been one of those senators, and he has tremendous respect throughout the world."
This from an elderstatesman whose fellow GOP Jerseyans rate McCain at 8% in the polls, behindGiuliani's whopping45% and Fred "Reagan Resume" Thompson's more modest12%.Nationally, McCain is doing a little better. Gallup and Newsweek put him in the thick of a second tier pack that includes a foundering Thompson, Huckabee and Romney – all behind Giuliani. In Iowa, at least momentarily, it's Huckabee who's broken out of the crowd to challenge Romney's lead.
In New Hampshire, a CNN/WMUR poll released yesterday shows Romney in first place with 33%,and McCain and Giuliani battling for secnd place at 18 and 16% respectively.
One can argue that all of theinvective last timesurrounding Kerry, Swift Boats, the National Guard and Bush simply exhausted the country and put most voters in a frame of mind resistant to war stories. But the record shows that the country has seldom withstood general election years without placing a warrior in contention.Even if he doesn't win a general election (ie. John C. Fremont, Winfield Scott), the old soldier emanation traditionally soothestheAmerican psyche.
Or does it still?
A panic-stricken Democratic Party thought so three years ago. When Kerry was sinking like Stonehenge with a month to go before the 2004 Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the conventional wisdom showed Dean winning and Clarkbanking ona chanceto gain a footholdby throwing all of his resources into New Hampshire. But an oldcomrade in arms from Vietnam – a Republican no less – stood on stage next to Kerry down the stretch, testifying to the former Swift Boat captain's heroism, and the Iraq War-bedeviled publicmade a beeline for the old war hero myth over outright antiwar candidate Dean.
In his autobiography, Clark says Kerry's victory in Iowa deflated his own war hero alternative to what everyone thought would be a Dean win in the Midwest.As the candidates headed into New Hampshireaft
er Dean's yeeaaahh moment, Kerrywas the clear comer, before he won.
Ceding Iowa to presumably Romney, who'spumpedthe mostmoney into the state,McCain's people right now are playing the old Clark card in New Hampshire. But with new polls showing Huckabee gaining ground on Romney, that'sgood breaking news for McCain. If Romney arrives weakened in New Hampshire, or if it'sthe regional candidateHuckabee doing a victory lap headed into the Northeast, McCain figures he can compete.
On one level, he's chained to Bush II and the policy in Iraq. Butin crisis times with a war on, the GOP will inevitably face a general election candidate without military service, much less combat. McCain's there as the old gutcheck. As a party blown up in the wake of Bush II casts about for ideological common ground, the go-to American warrior myth beloved in both parties may prove too foundationalfor the otherwise wayward GOP to resist.