Robin Toner: Do Presidents Need a Military Background? (NYT)





Robin Toner, in the NYT (Feb. 15, 2004):

For much of American history, a respectable - if not heroic - stint in the military was almost a prerequisite for high political office. An overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives for many years were veterans. Most presidents had served in the military, and even before the rise of modern image making, presidential campaigns celebrated the candidates' feats in battle, from Yorktown to Tippecanoe to PT-109.

This changed in recent years, as the draft ended and military service became a far less common rite of passage. Some analysts, in fact, saw the rise of a new, post-cold-war, feminized politics in the 1990's, epitomized by the ascent of Bill Clinton and his doggedly domestic agenda. Under this theory, the president-as-warrior seemed almost a throwback.

But not anymore. The president-as-warrior seems painfully relevant, as the first presidential election since the attacks of 9/11 takes off. And the old question - what did you do in your generation's war? - is back, with a vengeance, in a new and perhaps more unforgiving context.

Last week, Republicans were scrambling to define and defend President Bush's stint in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era: how he got there, where he served, how often he reported, whether he fulfilled his obligations.

Democrats, for their part, were trying to defend their likely nominee, Senator John Kerry, against charges that he came back from his much-decorated service in Vietnam to denounce the war, make common cause with the angriest protesters, including Jane Fonda, and vote against military spending.

It was a moment that captured the edgy, altered politics of the post-9/11 age. Republicans were outraged by the suggestion that President Bush, who is running for re-election as a proud and seasoned commander in chief, had not fulfilled his own duties in 1972, when he was assigned to the Alabama Air National Guard.

Democrats were intent on not being painted into their own dangerous corner in a dangerous age - and on beating back the idea that they are instinctively antiwar. All this played out for an electorate that, compared with four years ago, is acutely aware of the value of the military and the demands put upon it, and considers national security something other than an abstraction.

Analysts say the current debate revolves around the question pushed to the forefront by the war on terrorism: Which candidate is the better commander in chief? How do they behave under stress? Can they relate to the soldiers on the front lines? Has each of them lived, personally, by the values he professes publicly?

Douglas Brinkley, a historian at the University of New Orleans and the author of"Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," argues that the Clinton years, in retrospect, were an aberration, not the dawn of a new era.

"In 2004, it's the perfect time for that American tradition of waving the bloody shirt to come into our political discourse again,'' he said."The soccer moms of the 1990's have become the security moms of 2004."

And what the candidates are telling them, Mr. Brinkley and others said, is"I will make you safe."


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