Generals as political candidates

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 11, 1991|By Jack W. Germond& Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington--EVER SINCE Gen. George Washington routed the British and was rewarded by his grateful fellow-colonials with election as the first American president, war heroes have been prominently mentioned, and some nominated and elected, for high national office. In all, nine generals have been president, or nearly one in four.

So the current touting as presidential, vice presidential or at least senatorial timber of the two highest-profile U.S. military officers of the Persian Gulf war, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell and gulf theater commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, is par for the course. But the prospect of either of them getting to the big desk in the Oval Office, based on the experience of the modern era, has to be rated as slim.

Between 1828 and 1880, six generals became presidents, and five others were nominated by a major party. But with one notable exception -- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 -- the parties have paid little attention in the last century to battlefield heroes as presidential talent. Before Ike, the last previously elected general was James Garfield in 1880. The others before Garfield were Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

Six others have received major-party nomination, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur was a minor-party nominee in 1952. After his firing as United Nations forces commander in Korea by President Harry Truman in 1951, MacArthur returned to a mammoth hero's welcome, but he fizzled as a politician.

Eisenhower, though, proved to be a master politician and one of the most popular American presidents ever. He arrived on the political stage with such an unwritten slate that leaders of the two parties courting him did not know whether he was a Republican or a Democrat, and he usually managed to convey to voters that he was above partisanship.

In the modern era, military leaders have generally been able to do the same, although Powell's association with two Republican administrations pretty clearly points to his best political opportunities in the GOP.

Powell, in fact, has been mentioned as the ideal antidote for what many see as President Bush's one remaining political handicap -- running again with Vice President Dan Quayle. But speculation that the president might dump Quayle in favor of Powell has already been shot down by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who is expected to oversee the Bush re-election campaign, and Powell says he's not interested.

If Powell or even Schwarzkopf should turn out to be a closet Democrat, however, either one doubtless would be welcomed with open arms by many in a party currently suffering from political rigor mortis. Even before the gulf war, no Democrat had declared his 1992 presidential candidacy, and the war's outcome will be a further discouragement. One of those mentioned, Sen. Sam Nunn of George, has now said he can see no circumstance in which he would run. Others who like Nunn voted against the use of force in the gulf have been thrown on the defensive.

But the realistic political opportunity for the gulf war's military heroes is probably not great in any event. For all of Eisenhower's popularity, latter-day Americans have not shown much taste for men in uniform as their president, as MacArthur -- the epitome of the strong-willed military man -- found out. And of all the generals who did become president, only the first is judged by leading historians to have been a great one, and most have been rated mediocre.

A former Army colonel who reached the Oval Office, however, is on many best-president lists -- the hero of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, though, was a politician before he was a soldier, and governor of New York afterward.

So starting from the top, in politics as in the military, is not the customary route to the job of commander-in-chief. Presidential candidates still have to run in open campaigns laden with political booby traps, and generals haven't been especially sure-footed on the stump. You only have to recall Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay as George Wallace's third-party running mate in 1968 talking about how nuclear bomb tests were good for the Bikini atoll's plant life.

Neither Powell nor Schwarzkopf, to be sure, seems to be an extremist of the LeMay ilk, but national politics can be a foreign battleground for any military man -- even those as articulate as these two new celebrities of the gulf war.

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