Politics & Government

McCain's unique among candidates for his military service

John McCain.
John McCain. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Other candidates have more money. Others have more support.

But Sen. John McCain of Arizona has something none of the other top-tier candidates for president in either party has — a record of military service. Not just service, but combat service.

It's something that he thinks sets him apart from the field and makes him uniquely qualified to lead the country.

"There's a clear division between those who have a military background and experience in these issues, and people like Giuliani, Romney and Thompson, who don't, who chose to do other things when this nation was fighting its wars," McCain said recently.

Perhaps. Yet even as the country honors its military this weekend with Veterans Day and revs up for a wartime election, it's far from certain that it will turn to a Vietnam combat veteran as its next commander in chief.

Americans often have chosen non-veterans as president, electing 12 men with no military experience in 19 elections. The most recent was Bill Clinton, who defeated two World War II combat veterans, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.

And the country often has chosen veterans with less military experience than their rivals. In the most recent example, President George W. Bush, who served in the National Guard but never overseas or in combat, defeated Vietnam combat veteran John Kerry in 2004 and Vietnam veteran Al Gore in 2000. Bush also beat McCain for the Republican nomination in 2000.

One reason why military service may not be decisive in elections: The country has changed. The generation that sent millions to win World War II is dying off. And three decades after the draft was abolished, fewer Americans feel connected to the military.

"It doesn't have the same power in the public mind because the public itself doesn't serve," said Richard Kohn, a historian at the University of North Carolina.

Another reason: The way Americans think of war changed.

For 40 years after World War II, seven men who served in uniform won the White House — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the first Bush.

Yet in the 30-plus years since the Vietnam War, not a single veteran of that war has been elected president.

"Vietnam is something we don't remember with positive feelings," Kohn said. "It doesn't have that same kind of resonance in the public mind."

Vietnam service is not an issue for most of the other candidates.

None of McCain's top rivals for the Republican nomination — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — served in the military.

Two other Republican candidates did serve — Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas — but are at best long shots to win the nomination.

None of the top Democratic candidates — Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico — wore the country's uniform either.

Another reason the lack of service might not hurt — and McCain's service might not help him — is that voters might not think it critical to leadership.

There are plenty of warrior statesmen in American history to applaud, most notably George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. But there also are many examples of men without long military records who turned out to be very successful commanders in chief.

Ronald Reagan made training films during World War II. As president, he helped shape victory in the Cold War.

Franklin Roosevelt never served, yet led the country to victory in World War II.

And Abraham Lincoln served just a few months during the Black Hawk War of 1832 — never seeing combat. But he managed to lead the way to winning the Civil War.