K-State professor says military service no guaranteed stepping stone in march to White House
By Keener A. Tippin II
George Washington had it. Bill Clinton did not. FDR had it, to some extent. George W. Bush and John Kerry both have it, but not without some controversy surrounding it. But is it or isn't it important? Only the American voters know for sure.
"It" is military experience and according to Kansas State University history professor Jack Holl it may or may not be important.
Holl said the issue of military service has taken on more significance in the last 125 to 150 years of the United States' history than it had immediately following the original 13 colonies break from England's rule.
"Of course, our first president was Gen. Washington, but thereafter -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams -- I don't know what their military records were," Holl said. "What was important about this group was that they were members of the revolutionary generation. They clearly were associated with the war; they clearly were associated with the revolution and America's victory in the revolution."
As in the case of Jefferson, Monroe, Madison and both Adams, Holl said diplomatic experience was more relevant. But in the case of Gen. Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, his military background was absolutely essential in his ascension to the presidency.
"I think one could make an argument that Andrew Jackson would not have been elected president had he not been the victor at New Orleans," Holl said. "Thereafter, until Lincoln, things are a bit mixed.
"It's probably very important that Lincoln had been a member of the Illinois militia in terms of the Mexican war. Clearly the fact that Lincoln had served in the militia was important."
Holl doesn't believe Ulysses S. Grant would have been elected president had he not been the victorious commander in chief for the Union during the Civil War.
"In fact thereafter, for a period of time, both for the presidency, state and local elections, if you weren't a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, you would not be elected to office," Holl said. "The GAR was the American Legion of its time; it focused on northern Civil War veterans and you have a succession of presidents from Grant through McKinley who were generals in the Civil War."
According to Holl, the importance of military service has come in waves, depending on the significance of the military conflict. The more weight was given to military service depending on the significance of the conflict. He said while Teddy Roosevelt leading the "Rough Riders" up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War was clearly important for his political image, the United States had a succession of presidents -- Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover -- not associated with the military.
"Ironically, you do associate Franklin Roosevelt with the military because, although he had had polio by the time he became president, FDR had been Secretary of the Navy and everyone knew that," Holl said. "Everybody knew that Truman had been a captain of artillery in World War II.
"But from the Civil War to WWII, it's obvious -- at least until Bill Clinton -- the succession of presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton had played some role in WWII. Most of them were officers. All of them made a big point of it. So Clinton represents in a significant way, a break there."
Holl won't say that Clinton became president in spite of the fact that he didn't serve. He speculates that by the 1990s, having served in the military was less important to Americans than it had been in the past.
"But isn't it interesting that Korea and Vietnam haven't carried with it that same kind of compelling qualification," Holl asked. "Who cared if the president didn't serve in Vietnam or Korea? I don't think for example, having served in Vietnam is going to help Kerry much. In fact, as we know, he served in Vietnam and then was critical of the war. That seems to sort of cancel each other out."
What Holl believes is more important politically than a military record is for a presidential candidate to easily fit into what he describes as a civil religion image or creed; a creed that embodies a belief in God.
"We presume that all of our candidates believe in God; are God-fearing men," Holl said. "This became especially important beginning with Lincoln and you could see this during the recent funeral of former President Ronald Reagan. I think to be a part of America's civil religion is absolutely critical to be elected to the presidency. It's hard for me to imagine a person who could be elected who would stand apart from America's civil creed. The military, if you watched the Reagan funeral, is all bound up in that."
"We're not so much interested in having a president who is a Jeremiah -- one who is bringing hell fire, damnation and judgment," Holl said. "Jimmy Carter tried that and Americans couldn't stomach it. But if you think of the beloved presidents -- Lincoln, perhaps FDR, Ike, Ronald Reagan -- these are presidents who are pastors to the people; who explain the meaning of scriptures, the gospel -- particularly in terms of grace and love and inclusion. I think that's part of the image as the president as the pastor of the people."
In Holl's view, to become president a candidate must at least give lip service to this philosophy of civil religion.
"Americans need to believe that you really believe it," he said.
In Holl's opinion, one of the current president's great strengths in the mind of many Americans is that they believe that he is a God-fearing man.
"President Bush even believes that he has been called by God to be the president of the United States," Holl said.
"This is an extraordinary point of view," Holl said of Bush's conviction. "I believe Ronald Reagan probably did too. I know Dwight Eisenhower did. When Ike talked about duty, what did he mean by duty? Well, to a bunch of ministers in Washington shortly after his election he said 'the soldier's call to duty is identical to the pastor's calling to the church.'
"When he talked about the evil empire, Ike said 'the real difference between communism and America is not economic. Some people may think the difference is socialism and capitalism but no, no, that's not it. And it's not a method of government; it's not totalitarianism versus democracy. The real difference between the Soviet Union and the United States is religious.' Ike said that again and again. They're atheist and materialistic and we believe in God.'"
Holl stresses that Eisenhower's philosophy is "at the heart of the American creed," the nation's belief in the dignity of man.
Holl said the military is the one institution in America today that probably does the best job in terms of integration of the whole society -- rich and poor, male and female, race, religion.
To some degree, Holl believes, a military record holds far more importance with regards to state or local elections than national elections. He said, oddly enough, the military record of female candidates holds little relevance. In the future, instead of a military record, presidential candidates may be held in higher esteem if they possess another type of record.
"Sports is a moral equivalent to the military," Holl said. "In some ways they are probably interrelated. Some have argued that sports were a moral equivalent of war. I think that's one of the reason a sports figure is attractive, Kennedy was a Navy hero but on the other hand one of the lasting images of JFK is his athleticism."