That Adm. James Stockdale came across...

I WASN'T SURPRISED

October 15, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

I WASN'T SURPRISED that Adm. James Stockdale came across as such a loser in the vice presidential debate. I was on an admiral's staff once.

That may sound like the beginning of one of my patented cheap shot columns, but it's not. It's the beginning of one of my patented historical trivia columns.

The admiral on whose staff I served 40 years ago was Joseph J. (Jocko) Clark. He was not only one of the Navy's great heroes. He was also a kind, generous, understanding man to his reservist underlings. At least that was my experience.

Jocko was, I think, the highest ranking Cherokee Indian ever to wear a U.S. military uniform. He was one of the early aviators who rose to the heights in World War II, in which he was a task group commander. Historian Walter Lord later wrote of him, "He had plenty of the verve and -- that makes an exciting leader in battle."

No doubt Admiral Stockdale does, too, but that has nothing to do with political leadership. In fact, it's a minus. You can't lead other politicians and bureaucrats by verve and --. You lead them by cunning, patience and acceptance of the fact that most of your orders won't be carried out -- and that there will always be a reasonable sounding explanation for why not.

That's not the world admirals live in. Or generals. In early 1952, Harry Truman often sat in the Oval Office and mused to friends about what would happen if Gen. Dwight Eisenhower were elected. "He'll sit here," Truman would say, usually tapping his desk for emphasis, "and he'll say 'Do this!' and 'Do that!' And nothing will happen! Poor Ike -- it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

This country has never had an admiral president. Nor even an admiral vice president. I may be wrong but I don't think a career Navy man has ever even run for president or vice president. Several generals have.

Twelve American presidents were Army generals. But only five of those can be considered real military men. The others were only in the service in wartime and rose to high rank quickly. The five were:

Ike, who spent 34 years in uniform, rising to five-star general.

U.S. Grant, who spent 19 years in two tours, rising to rank of general of the Army in the Civil War.

Zachary Taylor, a 40-year-man who became major general and was the hero of the Mexican War.

William Henry Harrison. Well, sort of. He spent 10 years in the military, rising to major general during the War of 1812.

And Washington. Commander in chief of the Continental Army during the eight years of the Revolution and before that five years in the Virginia militia.

* * *

If Admiral Stockdale were elected vice president and President Ross Perot quit, Stockdale would become the second president who had been a prisoner of war. Can you guess the first?

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