I was recently in a meeting of former elected and appointed officials, thought leaders, and former policymakers. Also present was a retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Sadly, I do not spend enough time with members of our armed forces--especially those who rise to the highest ranks. When I am fortunate enough to converse with such figures, I am never surprised by their dedication to their country or by their extraordinary intelligence. What I always find staggering is their judicious and, for lack of better terminology, calming nature. Why is it that men and women entrusted with overseeing the fighting of wars possess such tranquil and moderating personalities?
Many American presidents have served in the U.S. military, but only two (arguably three) have been career military men, who literally led America into battle with the fate of the nation on their shoulders.
There are reasons George Washington occupies a place in American history as one of our greatest presidents. Following victory in an unwinnable war, Washington retreated to Mount Vernon, content to let the career politicians create the government for the land he had just freed. Yet when the Articles of Confederation were jettisoned 11 years later in Philadelphia and the Constitution ratified, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind (including staunch anti-federalists who led the fight against a chief executive) who the nation would select as its first leader.
Critics often depict Washington as either unintelligent or aloof--lacking the pen of Jefferson or the oratorical fire of Adams. Yet these assessments fail to acknowledge Washington's hidden genius, a subtle brilliance that likely resulted from his life-long military service. “His Excellency” knew that the infant republic’s success depended upon steady and temperate leadership. Accordingly, President Washington charted a sturdy course that appealed neither to the Hamiltonian nor the Jeffersonian factions, but instead to the broad American citizenry. Perhaps most importantly, Washington voluntarily left the presidency after two terms (he likely could have been elected to five), insisting that the burgeoning country required a change of leader if it was to maintain both order and flexibility.
Dwight Eisenhower was elected in a presidential landslide in 1952 after having overseen victory for the allies in Europe during World War II and serving as the first-ever supreme allied commander of NATO. Like Washington, history generally considers Eisenhower apolitical. Analysts at the time were uncertain if he would run as a Democrat or a Republican. While in office, Eisenhower largely concerned himself with international matters and large-scale domestic initiatives. He left most of the politicking to his vice president, Richard Nixon. Although Ike was criticized by the far right wing of the GOP (many of whom would go on to form the John Birch Society, recruit Barry Goldwater for the presidency, and found what is now known as movement conservatism), his presidency is generally viewed as a time of relative prosperity for the country. Historians today are finally recognizing the pivotal role Eisenhower played in the early stages of the civil rights movement. Again, one can’t help but wonder whether his “color blind” military experiences contributed to this historic effort.
One would be remiss not to mention Ulysses S. Grant in the vein of commanding generals who went on to become president. Grant attended West Point, served in the army for a stint, and ultimately defeated Robert E. Lee to save the Union. Unlike Washington and Eisenhower, however, Grant was not a career military officer. When the Civil War first erupted, Grant was working as a tanner in his father’s shop. He was Lincoln’s fourth choice to lead the Army of the Potomac. History continues to vacillate on Grant’s legacy, but it is safe to say that his experiences and temperament differed greatly from those of Washington and Eisenhower.
In an age where America’s partisan political divide appears almost impassable, one cannot help but wonder if a career military officer in the White House might possibly be the country’s panacea. There have been whispers about David Petraeus potentially pursuing higher office upon his retirement. I have no idea if he will do so, but history certainly indicates that someone of his temperament and experience would serve America well as commander in chief.