I’ve been following presidential politics for the large majority of my life. I remember arguing in my classroom in favor of Jimmy Carter in 1976 (I wasn’t even ten years old at the time — what’s YOUR excuse?), George Bush in 1980, Reagan in 1984, (resignedly) Bush again in 1988 and 1992, Dole in 1996, Bill Bradley in 2000, and Bush in 2004. And as I’ve grown older and more astute, certain patterns have emerged in the campaigns.
I think the first time the military records (or lack thereof) of the candidates really became significant in recent times was in 19888, when it was war hero George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis. Bush’s record was largely irrelevant, though; his resume’ (easily the most impressive of any president I can recall) overshadowed his wartime experiences. In the 40+ years since World War II, he had been an oilman, a Congressman, ambassador to China and the UN, director of the CIA, and finally vice-president. The only time I can recall it coming up was when Michael Dukakis took that infamous ride in that Abrams tank.
A brief word in Dukakis’ defense: while he may have looked a little ridiculous, he was dressed entrirely appropriately for that event. Tanker gear is designed with a purpose, and Dukakis actually had a good physique for a tanker. As bigh as they are on the outside, tanks are incredibly cramped on the inside. The best tankers tend to be short and wiry men, and Dukakis — either 5’6″ or 5’8″ — was a good size to work a tank. It was the dichotomy of his policies and the aggressive power of the tank that made the incident so laughable, and his trademark big nose and bushy eyebrows and bright red necktie were the icing on the cake.
Things really heated up in 1992, when the first Viet Nam – era candidate made a credible play for the White House. Bill Clinton had not only never served, but had actively avoided service. “Draft dodger” was tossed around, and a smidgen unfairly — he gamed the system and pulled strings and talked his way out of service. When he was called on it, the cry was that it was time to “get over” Viet Nam and that it was, by and large, irrelevant.
That argument helped carry the day, as the draft evader beat the established war hero.
Then, in 1996, Clinton faced someone whose record of valor was even stronger than Bush’s. Bob Dole earned the Bronze Star with the combat “V” for valor and two Purple Hearts on the battlefield, and is crippled to this day from those injuries. Once again, though, military records were deemed less significant than other factors, and Bill Clinton was swept to re-election.
In 2000, both candidates had service records. Al Gore had been an Army journalist in Viet Nam, while George W. Bush had flown fighter jets in the Texas Air National Guard. Neither had really distinguished themselves, but that didn’t keep folks from arguing that Bush had pulled strings or quasi-deserted and was not qualified for the presidency. It would have been interesting to see if that had come up had he been running against Clinton, but he wasn’t — and squeaked by to win the White House in a race that many (stupidly) think was stolen.
In 2004, though, the pendulum swung fully in the other direction. Bush’s mediocre service record was brought up again, this time far more prominently, because the Democratic nominee had a bunch of medals. (Medals that he had thrown over the White House fence in protest. No, he didn’t, he threw someone else’s and kept his. Or something. I’ve forgotten what story is currently the official one.) John Kerry built much of his campaign around his service in Viet Nam, largely by default — he didn’t want to remind people of his Congressional testimony accusing American soldiers of widespread atrocities and war crimes or his meeting with Vietnamese leaders in Paris while the war was still going on, and his Congressional record was astonishingly skimpy. His backers went into the history books, dug up all the things said about Bill Clinton in his races, and adapted them to attack Bush. And it almost worked.
Now it’s 2008, and the boot is quite snugly on the other foot. The Republican nominee presumptive has a military record that dwarfs any president or candidate since Eisenhower, a five-star general. (That’s “General Of The Army,” for the purists out there.) John McCain served in the United States Navy for 22 years, five and a half of them as a prisoner of war, before retiring as a Captain. He fought in the air over Viet Nam, led men into combat, and commanded a bomber squadron.
In contrast, neither of the leading Democratic candidates ever served in the military. (Although Hillary Clinton did, at one point, tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. Honest.)
According to these two leading Hillary Clinton backers, her experience of eight years as first lady and five years on the Senate Armed Services Committee make her more of an expert than a man with 22 years of active duty service and 20 years on that same Committee she touts as her major credential.
And Barack Obama’s major foreign policy achievement thus far seems to be in trying to convince the Canadian government that he doesn’t really mean his heated rhetoric against NAFTA.
Personally, I think the whole matter is overrated. My support for John McCain is quite tepid, and based on a few elements: first, he’s at least marginally better than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Second, if he’s elected, he’ll be out of the Senate, where he’s caused me a great deal of aggravation with his “Gang Of Fourteen” shenanigans and loathsome McCain-Feingold law. Third, there’s a hell of a good chance that he’ll be out of national politics by 2012 at the latest.
But gosh darn it, right now his mere status as the Republicans’ presumptive nominee is causing such grand contortions by the Democrats as they try to reverse all their pro-Kerry arguments now that the boot is on the other foot that I like him purely for the entertainment value.
(hat tip: Allahpundit at Hot Air)