Not the first medal to be challenged

September 03, 2004|By Theo Lippman Jr.

IF JOHN KERRY wins in November, he won't be the first president who was awarded a Silver Star medal for "gallantry in action against an enemy." And he won't be the first president who used the medal to be elected to high office. And he won't be the first president whose medal was called illegitimate.

He'd be the second in all those categories.

The only Silver Star president was Lyndon B. Johnson. A journalist once characterized Mr. Johnson's medal as "one of the least deserved but most often displayed Silver Stars in American military history."

Well, probably, but it's not that simple.

In 1940, Mr. Johnson, then a member of the House of Representatives from Texas and sitting on the Naval Affairs Committee, was given a commission as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He had no military background and took no training. The Navy Department asked him to join. It thought it would gain congressional clout and also get publicity spurring enlistments.

In 1941, Mr. Johnson ran in a special election for a vacant Texas Senate seat. He pledged on the stump that "if the day ever comes when my vote must be cast to send your boys to the trenches, that day Lyndon Johnson will leave his Senate seat to go with them."

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, he requested active duty at sea. The Navy refused him on the grounds that he was untrained. President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the rescue. He sent Commander Johnson on a monthlong survey of the war effort in the Southwest Pacific and to assure Gen. Douglas MacArthur that FDR would soon give him the assets he wanted.

Once in Australia, Mr. Johnson asked permission to fly on a B-26 bombing raid against a Japanese-held island. He was counseled against it by officials, citing the danger. But he insisted he needed to see combat firsthand, and he went. The B-26 was attacked by Japanese fighter planes and nearly shot down. Other planes in the raid were shot down.

General MacArthur awarded Mr. Johnson the Silver Star, possibly for the same seeking of Washington political clout that the Navy had sought. No other crew members of the plane that LBJ was on received medals. Mr. Johnson's medal no doubt helped him in later campaigns for high office.

In the four decades after the end of World War II, every president had served in uniform in that war, except Harry Truman, who saw combat in World War I.

It is certain that Dwight Eisenhower won his initial political popularity on the basis of his military successes. In 1948, both political parties tried to nominate him for president.

John F. Kennedy won in 1960 in part because of his World War II heroics. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart, and a popular book and movie dealt with his exploits aboard PT Boat 109.

The 1948-1992 period is similar to the post-Civil War period. Seven of the first eight postwar presidents were veterans of the Civil War, and Theodore Roosevelt was a military hero in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

In 1992, Americans elected an admitted draft dodger, Bill Clinton, over the first President Bush, who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1996, Mr. Clinton was re-elected over another war hero, Bob Dole (Bronze Star). And in 2000, George W. Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently to avoid service in Vietnam, defeated Al Gore, who was an Army veteran of Vietnam. The elections between the world wars were somewhat like that. Five consecutive non-veteran presidents were elected.

So the trend is somewhat against Senator Kerry, and would be even if his Silver Star is every bit as deserved as he and most objective people believe it to be.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer for The Sun.

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