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2008: The Year of the Civilian

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern -- veterans of foreign wars.

With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), none of the front-running White House contenders served in the military. Unless McCain rebounds from his political collapse, it looks as if next year's presidential election will be the first since World War II in which neither of the major-party nominees is a veteran.

The cattle call at the VFW underlined a remarkable cultural and political shift in American society. There was a time when military service was almost a prerequisite for public office. Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush served. But since the end of the Cold War, the country's leadership has come more and more from the exclusively civilian world. Bill Clinton, who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, beat veterans Bush and Robert J. Dole. And fewer than half as many veterans sit in Congress today as in 1991.

"The torch is being passed to a new generation that's never worn a uniform," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. "It's a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation."

The change reflects the end of the draft in the 1970s, giving birth to a cohort of leaders who were never required to endure basic training or risk the front lines.

What that means is up for debate. McCain, the Vietnam hero and prisoner of war, naturally argues that his service helped prepare him to lead in a time of war. "Clearly, voters will take life experience into consideration when electing our next president," said spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan. "John McCain's record of service and sacrifice makes him uniquely qualified -- more than anyone else running on either side -- to lead as commander in chief from Day One."

But that argument has not resonated this year. While 48 percent of voters in a February survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate with military experience, that has not stopped McCain's free fall in the polls. He trails three Republicans who never had to salute anyone: former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. None of the Democratic leaders -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- served, either.

The only candidates with military experience are lagging far behind in polls. Among Republicans, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) was an Army Ranger in Vietnam and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) was a flight surgeon in the Air Force. Among the Democrats, former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) served in the Army and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

The VFW has noted the paucity of comrades in arms in the top tier. "It's certainly indicative of a significant change in our society," said retired Navy Cmdr. Joe March, the group's spokesman. "However, what matters most to veterans is leadership that cares about those who served and is willing to support the kinds of legislation that provides the thanks of a grateful nation for those who served."

Jackson, the military historian, said he thinks the change in leadership makes a difference. "When you have leaders who haven't gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit," he said. "It's a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war . . . are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war's about, and they're less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians."

Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who has studied the topic, said that until recently there had been a "veteran's premium" in U.S. politics, in which leaders were more likely to have military r�sum� than the general population. "It would be a mistake for the country to adopt a veteran's litmus test for higher office," said Feaver, who just left the National Security Council staff. "But it is also not healthy for there to be too large a gap between the military and the political leadership."

Most presidents have had military service -- 31 of the 42 men who have held the office hadworn the uniform. But it has gone through cycles. Six of the seven presidents after the Civil War were generals. Yet soon after the turn of the century, six presidents in a row had no military background -- including the ones who led the nation through world wars, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the post-World War II era, the White House was dominated by the "Greatest Generation" until Clinton, and he remained an aberration until now. Since 1960, only one other person has won a major-party nomination without serving, Hubert Humphrey. Even since Clinton's election, every other nominee has still been a veteran -- former vice president Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) served in Vietnam, and Dole in World War II. George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, even if it became a source of controversy.

The lack of such furor so far this year also signals change. Attacks on candidates' service, or lack thereof, have been a staple for years -- Bush's Guard service, Kerry's time as a Swift boat commander and Clinton's efforts to evade the draft. Just this week, a group called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, responding to Bush's speech to the VFW comparing Iraq to Vietnam, took a shot at him for not facing combat: "The last thing these veterans needed was a history lesson. They remember America's wars because they actually fought them."

But now, instead of where candidates were during Vietnam, the campaign has focused on where their children are today. Romney faced an uncomfortable moment when asked by an antiwar activist in Iowa why none of his five sons has served. "My sons are all adults, and they've made decisions about their careers, and they've chosen not to serve in the military and active duty, and I respect their decision," he said. Romney added: "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president." He later clarified that he did not mean to equate campaigning with fighting in a war.

The shift in backgrounds can be seen on Capitol Hill as well. In 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, 68 percent of the Senate and 48 percent of the House had served in the military. Today, according to the Military Officers Association of America, it's 29 percent of the upper chamber and 23 percent of the lower chamber. Among defeated or retiring incumbents last year, twice as many had served as the freshmen replacing them.


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