John McCain entered the 2008 presidential campaign with a strong advantage shared by John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All four were war heroes whose opponents bore no record of military service. (Dubya's spotty attendance in the Air National Guard doesn't count.) Yet Kerry, Dole, and Bush père lost, and McCain will almost certainly lose, too. If you broaden the McCain category from "war hero" to "wartime veteran," then add Al Gore (2000) to the roster of vets defeated by nonvets in presidential elections.
Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all World War II veterans, but their service records were unexceptional. Yet they beat out George McGovern, a bomber pilot who flew 35 combat missions; Barry Goldwater, who flew missions to war zones in Asia and Africa and, as a reservist, later rose to the rank of major general; and Jimmy Carter, a pioneering submariner in the nuclear Navy. Carter's seven years in the Navy trumps Ronald Reagan's three years in the Army making wartime propaganda films in Culver City, Calif. But Gerald Ford's near-drowning and heroic rescue work in a typhoon during his wartime Navy service in the South Pacific trumps Carter's peacetime service. Yet Carter beat Ford in 1976.
With the sole exception of George H.W. Bush in 1988—who won by waging the dirtiest presidential campaign of the modern era and then served only one term—no war hero has won the presidency since John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960. Before Kennedy, there was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Before Eisenhower came a century and a half of American history during which war heroes and battlefield commanders routinely won the presidency, starting with George Washington and continuing through Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Between T.R. and Truman came a dry spell of 36 years during which no sitting president had served in the military. But that anomaly can be explained partly by the fact that for nearly half that time the president was a single person—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moreover, both Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had performed enormously significant civilian duties in World War I, Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy and Hoover as a highly enterprising organizer of famine relief, first as a private citizen and later as an appointee of President Woodrow Wilson. The Oval Office's current drought of military leaders, then, would seem historically unique.
What brought it about?
I posed that question to Alan Brinkley, professor of American history at Columbia. "I don't have an answer," he replied. "My guess is that military service no longer helps the way it once did, but that it does not hurt. I don't think wars have had the romance they did in the aftermath of World War II. Vietnam, Korea, the Gulf War, the Iraq war—no romance there."
Vietnam, of course, marks the starkest dividing line between an era when the American public expressed little or no dissent about war and an era when such dissent was common. One sad consequence of McCain's anticipated defeat is that it becomes possible to imagine, given the passage of 35 years since the U.S. withdrew its combat troops from Southeast Asia, that no Vietnam vet will ever serve in the White House. It could still happen, but the lengthening years now make it likelier that it won't.
David Greenberg, who writes Slate's "History Lesson" column and is an associate professor of American history at Rutgers, agrees with Brinkley that being a veteran, while hardly a negative, is no longer a positive in the way it used to be. For Greenberg, it's about the growing separation between military and civilian culture:
We still nominally admire vets, and when their heroism is put before us we are genuinely moved. Think, for example, about when McCain spoke of his wartime experience during his convention speech. But since the 1960s the military as an institution has not been integrated into American life the way it was when there was a draft. For many (possibly most) Americans, serving in war is an abstraction. It's not about our uncle or cousin who came home with a purple heart.
In Greenberg's view, military values like duty and sacrifice, which McCain tried to make centerpieces of his campaign,
have a tinny ring today. We admire these values from afar, or in the abstract. The left has won the culture wars in this sense. There remains a powerful backlash to the liberalization of American values, and in times of foreign crisis—after 9/11, during the early stages of the Iraq war—politicians like Bush benefit from the backlash. But when those crises don't loom as large, the military values don't seem terribly relevant or pertinent to being an effective politician.
I would add that the public has learned to separate the question of whether a candidate has demonstrated high moral character (most typically through wartime heroism or leadership) from the question of whether that candidate ought to be president. This struck me with particular force in 1992, when I was a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal. The presidential election was just a few weeks away, and I was assigned to write a story about the paper's latest poll. It found that a majority of Americans thought President George H.W. Bush possessed greater moral character than former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. History has demonstrated that finding to be correct (assuming you forget about the 1988 election). But the poll also found that a majority of Americans thought Clinton would make a better president than Bush. History has demonstrated that finding to be correct also, though not by as much as many hoped. I came away from this experience with the conviction that Americans vote not for the best man but for the best potential president.
Obama's moral character, unlike Bill Clinton's circa 1992, appears to be in good working order. But Obama belongs to a generation (me, too) that was never compelled to risk life and limb for our country. Few potential candidates for president in 2012 and beyond possess military experience of any kind, and fewer still have been tested in combat. It could be a decade or more before a war-hero candidate next runs for president. That may or may not be a loss for the presidency. (Most of the tested-by-military-fire presidents listed above, like most presidents generally, leave behind a poor-to-middling legacy.) But it's a departure from the past, one that merits watching.