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Generals as Candidates: Not Always Such a Winning Combination

Democrats today are swooning over Wesley Clark, the retired general, former NATO supreme allied commander, West Point valedictorian and Rhodes scholar who has leaped in national polls to the front in the nine-way contest for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Many Democrats see a winner in Clark — based apparently less on Clark himself or his public policy stands than on his résumé. Clark is a bona fide military hero, victor of the Kosovo campaign, veteran of Vietnam, and articulate critic of Bush administration strategies for stabilizing Iraq and waging the war on terrorism.

There’s reason for their optimism. American voters have long favored military men, and Clark joins good company as a former general seeking the presidency. Twelve generals have reached the office (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and Dwight Eisenhower). Add to that list a host of more-junior officers who made wartime heroics central to their campaigns: Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, John F. Kennedy’s command of PT 109, Jimmy Carter’s service on nuclear submarines, and George H.W. Bush’s exploits as a young World War II fighter pilot, among others.

The appeal is obvious: As Henry Adams said of Grant, “He might be as partisan as he pleased, but a general who had organized and commanded half a million or a million men in the field, must know how to administer.” And in time of war or world crisis, who better can demonstrate patriotism, commitment and ability to face overseas threats? Clark, in opposing President Bush’s foreign and military policies, would avoid any hint of “weakness” and bring strong credibility to his side.

It sounds terrific, almost too good to be true. But in fact, that’s just what it is. Clark may turn out to be an excellent White House candidate on his own merits, but before getting carried away, Democrats should note a caution light flashing across the history. Of the 12 former generals elected president, none reached the office by defeating a sitting incumbent in time of war or national emergency. In fact, only one, Eisenhower (the only general elected in the 20th century) ran during wartime at all. Eisenhower pledged in 1952 to “go to Korea” to end that unpopular conflict, but Harry Truman that year chose not to seek re-election. Instead, Eisenhower faced Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and won handily. He never had to face the awkward task of challenging a sitting commander in chief.

Less prominent but equally instructive are three American generals who failed to win the presidency — Whig Winfield Scott in 1852 and Democrats George McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock in 1864 and 1880, respectively. Rank aside, these candidates faced perennial issues that no military aura could avoid: personality, loyalty and competence. Failing these basics, like mere civilians, they sent voters looking elsewhere.

Scott failed on personality. Known as “old fuss ’n’ feathers” for his stuffy, rank-conscious demeanor, Scott still had enormous appeal as hero of the Mexican War and conqueror of Mexico City, and he used it to win his party’s nomination in a dramatic 53-ballot convention. But Democrats too got the hint and nominated their own military man that year, former New Hampshire Senator and Mexican War “citizen-soldier” Franklin Pierce. Both parties had endorsed the Compromise of 1850 that year, taking the era’s lightning-rod issues of slavery and sectionalism temporarily off the table. Scott ran on his “Gunpowder Glory,” as critics called it, and allies ridiculed Pierce for alleged drinking — they called him “the hero of many bottles.” But voters recognized Scott’s arrogance and distance. With no pressing issues in his favor, he carried only four states and lost in a landslide.

More notorious was McClellan, nominated by Democrats to face Abraham Lincoln in 1864 at the height of the Civil War. McClellan had reason to dislike Lincoln, who earlier had removed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac for ineffectiveness, capped by McClellan’s failure to capitalize on advantages during the bloody Antietam campaign in September 1862.

Still, McClellan remained popular among his former troops, and his national exposure as former commanding general gave him strong credibility. As each new Union defeat or bloody standoff fanned anti-war passions in the North, McClellan increased his own attacks on Lincoln for ineffectiveness in the war, restrictions on civil liberties and emancipation of the slaves, portraying himself as a competent alternative.

But McClellan soon found trouble. Civil War-era Democrats in the North were dominated by the party’s peace wing, called “copperheads” by critics. Meeting in Chicago in August 1864, they unanimously nominated McClellan for president but saddled him with a platform proclaiming the war a failure and demanding an immediate negotiated ceasefire with the South. McClellan tried to distance himself, insisting he still supported the troops and the Union cause, but couldn’t escape tags of defeatism and disloyalty as Republicans ridiculed his earlier military failures.

When Lincoln’s generals finally did achieve important victories late in 1864 — particularly Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on Sept. 2 — Lincoln’s victory became ensured. McClellan lost the election, and his standing in history has suffered ever since for his wartime opposition to the president.

Sixteen years later, Democrats turned to another Civil War general, Hancock, to face the Republicans’ 1880 presidential nominee, Garfield. Garfield too was a Civil War general, though Hancock’s military record outshined either Garfield’s or McClellan’s. An Army of the Potomac commander throughout the war, Hancock had played pivotal roles at Gettysburg, the Wilderness and a string of major battles. By 1880, 15 years after Appomattox, as wartime passions faded and economic concerns took more center stage, Democrats hoped to end their stigma as the party of Southern rebels and neutralize Republican “bloody shirt” rhetoric by putting forth their own true military hero.

What Hancock lacked, though, was expertise on national issues. He had stayed in the army after the war. He took controversially lenient stands toward defeated Southerners as a Reconstruction military occupier but otherwise avoided thorny civilian arguments. As a result, Hancock stumbled during the campaign when newspaper reporters asked him about protective tariffs — a crucial financial issue in the day. Hancock called tariffs a “local question” — despite the fact that tariffs were set by Congress in Washington, D.C., though often reflecting local politics.

Republicans mocked Hancock’s apparent confusion, blasting “Democratic free trade as dictated by the South.” Thomas Nast drew a Harper’s Weekly cartoon showing Hancock in military uniform, looking bewildered, asking, “Who is ‘tariff’ and why is he for revenue only?” — language from Hancock’s own platform.

Hancock’s war record, strong as it was, became an easy target for the Republicans’ own military celebrity — Grant, hero of Appomattox and Hancock’s former superior officer. Asked during the contest if Hancock was in sympathy with the South, Grant offhandedly remarked: “He is crazy to be President. He is ambitious, vain and weak. They will easily control him,” a quote that quickly landed in the newspaper headlines.

Garfield, by contrast, a 16-year House Member and former chairman of the Banking and Appropriations committees, had mastered economic policy and was a skillful public speaker. Hancock lost the election by the closest popular vote margin ever — less than 2,000 out of some 9 million votes cast by one count — far closer than Al Gore’s popular margin over Bush in 2000.

The record is clear. Military rank alone does not win elections. Any candidate must still demonstrate basic qualifications for office: an approachable personality, integrity and fluency on issues. Wartime credentials can help capture the spotlight for a time, as Clark has already proved. But once he has it, it’s up to the candidate to stand on his own two feet. For Wesley Clark, so far, so good.

Kenneth D. Ackerman, counsel to the law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda in D.C., has authored two books: “The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869” and the recent “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield.”

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