Most '08 candidates lack military record

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is one of the few leading presidential candidates to have spent any time in a military uniform.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is one of the few leading presidential candidates to have spent any time in a military uniform.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 2008 presidential campaign is long on war rhetoric and short on warriors.

Despite the high-profile roles of the battle against terrorism and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the presidential campaign, few of the candidates can claim military experience on their resumes.

Of the top tier of 2008 candidates, only Republican John McCain has been to war and served in uniform.

Yet, while the demand for a president with a military background might be expected to run high in the post-Sept. 11 era, few see that as a determining factor in the 2008 race.

"It teaches you certain things, but I don't think it makes you a better candidate for higher office," said Navy veteran Edward Ferrari, 76, of Randolph, N.J. "It teaches you honor and duty. I guess you can get that in other places, too."

White House warrior needs wane
Polls indicate that while having a military background can be helpful to presidential candidates, a majority of adults don't see it as essential. Many people say candidates who've served as a governor, member of Congress or business executive are better prepared for the Oval Office than a general or admiral.

More broadly, an AP-Ipsos poll last month indicates leadership traits or experience are far less important to voters than character attributes such as honesty.

The 2008 lineup of candidates also makes clear that a new generation of political leaders has stepped forward, some too young to have been eligible for the Vietnam-era draft. Beyond that, fatigue with the Iraq war may have dulled the appetite for a warrior in the White House.

"We're sick and tired of war and I think that feeling is going to last for about a decade," said Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

To some, like Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, a war record still counts. "When you're a war hero, you have less to prove on the character front," he said, comparing McCain with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner in national popularity polls, who did not serve in the military.

The Iraq factor
Vietnam veteran Audrey Birgstresser said presidents with military experience understand the sacrifices of deployed soldiers and how to deftly resolve conflicts.

"They know how to make decisions under pressure because that's what their life is all about," said Birgstresser, 59, of Harrisburg, Pa.

Yet Fred Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University, doubts that even the few veterans in the race will make much of their service given the situation in Iraq.

"Now that we're in this period of an increasingly virulent insurgency, it would probably be more electorally effective, even for the people who have military experience, to say they are more suited to be peacemakers, not that they were suited to manage violent conflicts," he said.

Since at least the 1992 election, being a war hero hasn't been a ticket to the White House.

Former President Clinton, who was never in the armed forces, defeated two World War II combat veterans - former President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and former Sen. Bob Dole in 1996.

President George W. Bush's National Guard duty helped keep him out of Vietnam, yet he defeated three veterans of that conflict - McCain in the 2000 GOP primaries, Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election and Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

Candidates' military background
Of the current Democratic front-runners, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, 45, was too young to have been drafted during the Vietnam War. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, 53, had a draft number that was never called. And, Sen. Hillary Clinton, 59, like most women her age, would not have been expected to serve. Women weren't subject to the draft.

Among the other candidates in the Democratic race, Sen. Chris Dodd, 62, of Connecticut, served in the Army Reserve from 1969 to 1975. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico received student and medical classifications that probably spared him from service in Vietnam, including one for a deviated septum. Richardson had a draft lottery number of 131 in 1970, a year when men with numbers as high as 195 were called.

Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, 64, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 60, also had medical conditions that kept them from serving in Vietnam.

Among the leading Republican candidates, only McCain, 70, has a military record. The Arizona senator spent more than 20 years in the Navy, almost a quarter of it in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.

Draft deferments kept Giuliani, 62, of out Vietnam while he attended law school. In 1968, as the Vietnam War was escalating, he was classified 1-A, or draft eligible. After going to work for a federal judge, he received an occupational deferment. He was classified 1-A again in 1970, but had a high lottery number.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 60, received a draft deferment while serving as a Mormon missionary in France during the war. He was eligible for the draft later, but was not selected. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, 50, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 51, came of age after the draft ended in 1973. Neither has military experience.

Another Republican, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, received student deferments. He was available for service in 1969, but was reclassified in 1970 because of stress-related anxiety.

On the other hand, longshot GOP hopeful Rep. Duncan Hunter, 58, who describes himself as "the national security candidate," was an Army paratrooper and Ranger in the Vietnam War and has a personal connection to the Iraq war. His son, a Marine, has completed two tours of duty there.

Congress has also seen a drain in the number of members with military experience.

Only 131 members have had some form of military service, according to a Congressional Research Service report. During the 93rd Congress from 1973 to 1975, 390 veterans served.

Even if a military background isn't essential to voters, a sense that a candidate can handle the role of commander in chief remains important to most Americans.

"I think that the voters in this post-9/11 era will take into account everything about candidates," said Dayton Duncan, who was an insider on the presidential campaigns of Democrats Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, "and part of that filter is, 'Are you capable of protecting us?'"