Hail to the Chiefs

There was a time — starting the moment George Washington left office — that being a military heavyweight wasn’t seen as one of the big qualifications for being president. The Civil War (six) and World War II (six) produced the highest number of president veterans–most who served as generals. If there’s a pattern here — military service or expertise turning into excellence as commander-in-chief in wartime or in peacetime — it escapes me.

George Washington: Trenton was one of his greatest hits.

John Adams: Learned to be commander in chief on the job.

Thomas Jefferson: Learned on the job.

James Madison: Learned on the job–fought actual war.

James Monroe: Learned on the job.

John Quincy Adams: Learned on the job.

Andrew Jackson: Knew his way around a battlefield. (References.)

Martin Van Buren: Learned on the job.

William Henry Harrison: Did someone say ‘Tippecanoe’?

John Tyler: Learned on the job.

James K. Polk: Learned on the job. Enthusiastically.

Zachary Taylor: Soldier.

Millard Fillmore: Learned nothing on the job.

Franklin Pierce: Mexican War combat veteran.

James Buchanan: Learned on the job.

Abraham Lincoln: Learned on the job (served in Illinois militia during Blackhawk’s War).

Andrew Johnson: Learned on the job.

U.S. Grant: The Civil War brought out the best in him and the blood out of everyone else.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Civil War combat veteran.

James A. Garfield: Civil War combat veteran

Chester A. Arthur: Civil War quartermaster.

Grover Cleveland: Avoided Civil War draft by paying a substitute. Learned on the job. Twice.

Benjamin Harrison: Civil War combat veteran.

William McKinley: Civil War combat veteran.

Theodore Roosevelt: Noted equestrian with enthusiasm for Cuba.

William Howard Taft: Learned on the job.

Woodrow Wilson: Learned on the job.

Warren Harding: Learned on the job.

Calvin Coolidge: Learned on the job.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Former assistant secretary of the Navy.

Harry S Truman: World War I combat veteran.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ike. Mentioned something about a “military-industrial complex.”

John F. Kennedy: PT-109.

Lyndon B. Johnson: World War II combat veteran (Army).

Richard M. Nixon: World War II, Navy; played mean game of poker.

Gerald Ford: World War II combat veteran (Navy).

Jimmy Carter: Navy nucular engineer.

Ronald Reagan: Learned on the job (warmed up dispatching National Guard to Berkeley).

G.H.W. Bush: World War II combat veteran (Navy).

Bill Clinton: Otherwise engaged during Vietnam draft. Learned on the job.

G.W. Bush: Air National Guard (1970s); carrier landing (2003).

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Commander in Chief

About a year ago, Garry Wills had some thoughtful things to say about the notion of the president as commander-in-chief and about what that role has evolved and is evolving into. He talked about the militarization of our politics, the way “wartime discipline” has become the norm rather than the exception, and about the glorification of the president as a military leader.

I can’t improve on what Wills said. But I can register alarm at the sudden, crazy veering of Hillary Clinton to inform the world that she and John McCain are commander-in-chief material, while Barack Obama is not.

My friend Pete sent me this quote, which I find in a Baltimore Sun blog:

“I think that since we now know Sen. (John) McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that. And I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold,” the New York senator told reporters crowded into an infant’s bedroom-sized hotel conference room in Washington.

“I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she said.

Sure. As Wills points out, everyone and his sister has to strike the military pose now (even when the effect is comic rather that martial). That part’s unfortunate, but no shock. What seems like lunacy, though, is the embrace of McCain. Yeah, that may help her in her contest with Obama. But apparently she cares nothing about what happens when she or Obama will actually be running against McCain. She’s endorsing him, for crying out loud.

But that’s not the only way in which she’s taking leave of her senses. She’s decided that she has to play act at the job of commander-in-chief. First with the “red phone” ad, and now — as the Sun’s blog describes — by holding what was described as a “cabinet style” press conference in the company of a bunch of military officers who support her. What she’s doing is working to reduce the primary campaign to the president’s military role. Again, this must be aimed solely at Obama, because no one can honestly believe she’ll compare favorably to McCain if that’s the way the campaign is framed.

It’s possible she’s given Obama an opening, though. The president’s military conduct during the last eight years was repudiated in the 2006 election. McCain’s rhetoric about war has become so extreme that, as my brother John pointed out, people are calling him McBush. Clinton is recklessly aligning herself with McCain (an act that, among other things, makes you wonder what, if anything, she really believes about Iraq). After the decade we’ve just gone through, and the prospect that continuing on the same path will not only cost trillions but cripple the armed forces the Bushes, Cheneys, McCains (and now Clintons) profess to love so much, wisdom, restraint and an open mind will look pretty good in the Oval Office. That’s Obama’s argument to make.

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Air Lines and A. Lincoln

The Library of Congress site–a dangerous place to explore. I actually started out with a purpose when I began searching the its collection of broadsides last night. Among knowledge nuggets gleamed: American railroads of yesteryear often called themselves “air lines.” Why? Were they towing zeppelins ‘cross the prairie? No. “Air line” (or “air-line”) described the shortest route between two points

I also happened across the item below: apparently a clever piece of Democratic campaign ephemera from 1864 that purports to be an Abraham Lincoln business card. March 4 refers to the date in 1865 that Lincoln would have left office had he lost the election. (Click the image for a larger, legible version of it. The library’s page on the item is here.

And the text says:

“To Whom It May Concern:

“My old customers, and others, are no doubt aware of the terrible time I have had in crossing the stream, and will be glad to know that I will be back, on the same side from which I started, on or before the Fourth of March next, when I will be ready to swap horses, dispense law, make jokes, split rails, and perform other matters in a small way.”)


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It’s Thom’s 21st birthday. Boy, did that come fast. I was under the impression we just brought him home from the hospital. (Of course, my time sense is getting severely telescoped these days. Seems like I can still see the dust rising from the ’69 Cubs team falling on its face.)

Anyway, he’s up in Eugene, where birthday weather will be overcast but maybe not rainy. TB, have a great one, and I’ll wait till you’re back down here to toast the day.