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General Ignorance

Petraeus for VP? Both parties have a long, dismal history of nominating unqualified generals.

The Drudge Report’s recent disclosure that Mitt Romney is considering CIA Director David Petraeus for his running mate comes as no surprise. Romney is a smart politician, and American voters reflexively favor successful military men.

Petraeus first came to public attention as commander of American and allied forces in Iraq. In that position, Petraeus persuaded President George W. Bush to reinforce his forces substantially. When the Iraq occupation forces subsequently succeeded in tamping down the Iraqi opposition, Petraeus won plaudits for his strategic insight. Overlooked then and since was that Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki had insisted on the inadequacy of the civilians’ politically-calculated manpower allocation years earlier. Shinseki’s reward was forced retirement.

The Iraq “Surge” was simply a reinforcement. Still, Bush’s change of heart and the concept’s short-term success made Petraeus the military darling of the Republican Party, and of many others. Petraeus soon took the same concept to Afghanistan, and from there found himself appointed by President Obama to preside over the CIA. These are his qualifications for the vice presidency.

What Petraeus thinks about the Ryan Budget, Obamacare, judicial philosophy, or any of the other current political issues, we can only guess. Does Mitt Romney have a better idea of Petraeus’s stance than we can glean from the public record? If the test of a vice presidential nominee is whether he is prepared to become president, surely Romney must know all about Petraeus’s politics and philosophy, right?

Wrong. America has a long, long history of elevating generals of completely unknown political persuasions to the presidency.

Most outrageous by far was the Whig Party’s nomination of General Zachary Taylor for president in 1848. Taylor had won renown as the conqueror of Mexico in the Mexican War of 1846-48, even as the Whigs unfairly castigated President James K. Polk for launching the war and decried his conduct of it. How hypocritical, then, for them to turn around and nominate Taylor for president. No one had any firm idea what Taylor stood for. According to Professor Michael Holt of the University of Virginia, it is entirely likely that the first time Taylor ever voted was when he cast a presidential ballot for himself in 1848. The Whigs abruptly ceased criticizing the war, and Taylor cruised to victory.

The Whigs’ Democratic foes were no more resistant to the allure of the military hero. In fact, their party had been founded on a campaign to elect precisely such a fellow to the presidency. New York’s Senator Martin Van Buren, South Carolina’s Vice President John Calhoun, and Richmond Enquirer editor Thomas Ritchie held that the 1824 canvass had been decided by a “Corrupt Bargain” between Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. As the story went, although Andrew Jackson had received the most popular and electoral votes, Speaker Clay had swung the House of Representatives behind Adams; in return, Adams gave Clay the top Cabinet post (then a launching pad to the presidency).

What to do? For Calhoun, the Corrupt Bargain threatened republicanism itself: if Congress could bypass the people’s choice and award the presidency on the basis of naked horse-trading, the fate of the second-century Romans awaited the United States. He worked for Jackson’s 1828 election even before Adams’s 1825 inauguration.

The people voted for the Hero of New Orleans in 1828 and again in 1832. Calhoun’s supporters, who had lamented the Adams-Clay tariffs of 1824 and 1828, were shocked when Jacksonian Democrats in Congress voted to raise the tariffs even higher in 1832. The outcome was the Nullification Crisis, in which Jackson took a constitutional position closer to that of Calhoun’s chief opponents than to that of Calhoun and his Carolina compatriots.

Voting for military figures now, only to learn what they stand for later, did not end with the antebellum era, however. When the Civil War’s conquering general Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency in 1868, his attitude toward the prostrate South was largely unknown. He, too, was elected mainly on the strength of his military fame. Not only did his presidency prove monumentally corrupt, but his racial and constitutional views grievously disappointed leading figures in the Republican Party. Grant’s prescription for the postwar problems of the country amounted to a non-solution.

Perhaps the most outlandish manifestation of the tendency of American parties and voters to want conquering generals for president, regardless of their views, involved the former Allied commander in Western Europe from World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In light of the great unpopularity of President Harry S. Truman, the Democratic Party feared it would yield the White House after five terms. What better way to avoid that calamity than to recruit Eisenhower to be its candidate in 1952?

Eisenhower turned down the Democrats and ran as a Republican. The GOP, like its Whig predecessor in 1848, was happy to have as its standard-bearer a general of essentially unknown beliefs. Eisenhower’s presidency proved nearly indistinguishable from a Democrat’s, with the notable exception of his appointment of several non-segregationists to southern posts in the federal judiciary. Even here, however, one could observe that Eisenhower’s southern judicial appointees were essentially identical in their judicial approach to the left-wing Democrats who in the rest of the country were the human residue of the Roosevelt and Truman years. In addition, Eisenhower appointed the two most important judicial liberals of the 20th century, Earl Warren and William Brennan, to the Supreme Court. Whether he really said he regretted having done so will never be decided; had he been a man with a solid political track record instead of just an eligible general, such “missteps” likely would have been avoided.

Ah, you might say, but 2012 is post-Vietnam. Americans no longer worship at the altar of Mars. They would not fawn over some off-the-rack item in green with spaghetti on his hat bill and ribbons on his chest.

You would be mistaken. As recently as 1994, both the Democratic and Republican Parties hoped to recruit General Colin Powell, and polls showed him leading President William Clinton in Americans’ preferences. Powell told a public audience in November 1994 that he was “developing a political philosophy.” Had he run, he likely would have won.

And then people would have learned what he stood for.

How does one account for this phenomenon? In his retirement, ex-president Thomas Jefferson thought the rage for Andrew Jackson threatened America’s republican institutions. If so unlearned, ill-tempered, and violent a man could vault to the fore of the political system on the basis of martial fame, Jefferson feared, empire could not be avoided. Like other American revolutionaries, Jefferson believed that all constitutions degenerate, and the question was how to slow the descent from 1789 to an American dictatorship.

David Petraeus gives no sign of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, nor does he seem a Marius, Sulla, or Caesar. There is nothing good, on the other hand, about our fellow Americans’ knee-jerk attraction to every famous general. It seems to indicate a desire to be commanded, to follow, to have someone to salute. With that in mind, Jefferson’s fears take on a new urgency.

A Petraeus choice might help Mitt Romney’s flagging campaign. Let us hope he does not make it.

Kevin R.C. Gutzman is professor of history at Western Connecticut State University and the author of James Madison and the Making of America. Follow him on Twitter.



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