This election season a fascinating counterintuitive trend will get another test. For four consecutive Presidential elections, the candidate with the superior military background has lost to the candidate with a questionable military background. In three of them, a decorated combat veteran lost to someone who clearly went out of his way to avoid combat.
A quick run-through:
Bill Clinton: No military background; used a variety of methods of avoid being drafted, including reneging on ROTC commitment
George Bush: Enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday; flew 58 combat missions in World War II; won Distinguished Flying Cross, among other decorations
Bill Clinton: see above
Bob Dole: Enlisted in Army in 1942; served as 2nd Lieutenant in 10th Mountain Division; severely wounded in April 1945; won 2 Purple Hearts and Bronze Star (with “V” for valor)
George W. Bush: served in Texas Air National Guard; probably used connections to avoid being sent to Vietnam; shirked some of his duties with National Guard
Al Gore: turned down National Guard position; enlisted in Army; served in Vietnam in non-combat role (was a journalist)
George W. Bush: see above
John Kerry: enlisted in Navy Reserve while at Yale; served as Lieutenant in Vietnam; won Silver Star, Bronze Star, and 3 Purple Hearts
The 2008 election will pit John McCain (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and the most celebrated prisoner-of-war in U.S. history) against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama – neither of whom served, but neither of whom went out of their way to avoid military service.
History as a Guide?
A look at Presidential elections makes it difficult to draw solid conclusions. It is true that the most prominent General in many of America's wars made it to the White House: Washington (Revolution), Jackson (War of 1812), Taylor (Mexican War), Grant (Civil War), and Eisenhower (WWII). And in the years after the Civil War and World War II, many Presidents were veterans.
[Sidebar: Civil War histories occasionally have passages like this one, from Bruce Catton's account of the Battle of South Mountain in Mr. Lincoln's Army: "Then the 23rd Ohio came up to help, and the two regiments went storming up the hill, firing as they went. The lieutenant colonel of the 23rd, a promising chap named Rutherford B. Hayes, was shot down, wounded; William McKinley, sergeant in the same regiment, was unhurt."]
But very often, civilians have defeated former officers. John Quincy Adams beat Andrew Jackson in 1824; Martin Van Buren beat William Henry Harrison (whose nickname, Tippecanoe, came from his victory in a battle with Indians) in 1836; Lincoln defeated George McClellan in 1864; and so on.
The most interesting 19th century election is 1852 when Winfield Scott, America's greatest soldier between Yorktown and Fort Sumpter, was defeated by Franklin Pierce. Pierce served under Scott in the Mexico City campaign (Halls of Montezuma and all that), but was wounded when he fell off his horse. In the '52 election he was accused of cowardice in that war, but he still went on to defeat Scott.
What Does It Mean?
It's easy to read too much into this. One might think that after Vietnam, American voters had become so ambivalent about the military that we began choosing draft dodgers over war heroes. But if you look closely at the last four elections, you'll see that is an oversimplication
Bush 41 (certainly) and Bob Dole (probably) would have defeated Bill Clinton if not for the 3rd party candidacy of Ross Perot (US Naval Academy; used connections to renege on his commitment to the Navy).
As befits the agonizing closeness of the 2000 election, the military careers of Gore and Bush 43 probably didn’t seem that different to many voters. Gore was in Vietnam, but his fingers pressed typewriter keys rather than triggers, and Bush flew jets over Texas, which didn't seem so bad after Clinton. Both men were sons of prominent politicians and both wore uniforms, but neither saw combat.
John Kerry was forced to fight off the attacks of fellow Swift Boat veterans who questioned everything about Kerry’s military service. By 2004, Bush's National Guard story was old news, and attempts by 60 Minutes to resuscitate it backfired.
This election is much more of a straight-up race between a genuine war hero and someone who didn’t serve but has no military skeletons in their closet either.
There's no question that a succesful military background is helpful in one's political success. Being at the head of an army that won a war is a huge advantage and being a war hero certainly contributes to a story that resonates with voters. Indeed, the political careers of John McCain and John Kerry are almost unimaginable without it.
But ultimately, military service is just one factor among many when voters make their decisions.If John McCain goes down in defeat this November, it will keep an interesting trend going. But it will have nothing to do with that trend.