Big Brass and Big Politics

September 22, 1992

Military top brass have been messing around in civilian politics since George Washington became president. This, however, does not prevent a bit of eye-rolling at the spectacle of Adm. William J. Crowe, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, endorsing Bill Clinton's White House bid, or Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, hero of the Persian Gulf war, questioning the Democratic candidate's qualifications to be commander-in-chief.

Both of these four-star fellows have moved on to carve out lucrative careers in mufti -- Admiral Crowe as a television military commentator and General Schwarzkopf as author of a guaranteed best-seller soon to hit the book stores.

Admiral Crowe, alienated from the Bush administration since he spoke out against the gulf war, is backing Governor Clinton and terms the dispute over the candidate's draft status during the Vietnam war as "divisive and peripheral." General Schwarzkopf has hit back by asking how a president, i.e., Mr. Clinton, who avoided service in a war he opposed would "handle it when he has to send other people to war."

Could it be that Admiral Crowe, now persona non grata in the Bush White House, is fixing to be the new Maxwell Taylor? He was the general who quit the Eisenhower administration as army chief of staff in a dispute over military policy and wound up as President Kennedy's closest military adviser.

General Schwarzkopf's relations with George Bush are more complicated. While he helped the president by questioning Mr. Clinton's conduct during Vietnam, he once suggested that the war against Iraq ended too soon, only to withdraw his comments after criticism from the White House, and in his book complains that some "hawks" on the president's staff pushed for a ground attack against Iraq before his forces were ready.

The Crowe or Schwarzkopf interventions may be a bit unseemly, but they are in a grand tradition. During the Civil War, Gen. George McClellan drove Lincoln to distraction by his lack of aggressiveness, then ran against him in the 1864 election. There also was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was fired by President Truman for insubordination in the Korean War, then returned home with presidential ambitions never to be realized.

The path from high-visibility military service to the White House is well worn. After George Washington came Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, among others. After all, it's a free country -- even for retired brass.

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