Will America Ever Elect Another Veteran President?

The one thing Clinton, Bush, and Trump have in common? They all avoided hard military service. Could it be that after Vietnam, we just don’t care anymore?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

America’s three Baby Boomer Presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump—were born within ten weeks of one another during the summer of 1946. As different as the men are, as different their backgrounds, the symmetry is striking. Their lives serve as paradigms for so much that transpired over the course of the American Century, separately and in concert. This is especially true when observing their relationships to and with the military, and the great war of their generation.

“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” Michael Herr wrote in his 1977 book, Dispatches. While perhaps figuratively accurate, none of the three Baby Boomer presidents served there, despite coming of age during the height of the war. Not having a veteran of a major conflict later be elected commander-in-chief proved a first in American history, no small feat for a country spawned in armed revolution.

This is not an anomaly, nor a coincidence. Nor is it a matter of a bygone past. It’s our present, too, and likely our future. It’s an indicator of how much our nation is still mired in that conflict and the debates that raged around it, and hard evidence of how our contemporary nation really feels about military service, beyond the parades and star-spangled ceremony.

I. Then

Bush’s and Clinton’s fathers served in World War II while Fred Trump built military barracks. The three men were born into a country of postwar hope and ambitions. The GI Bill, the interstate highway system, the suburbs, rock and roll, etcetera—for children growing up in that era, everything was possible as never before. Including dying in an atomic blast.

The GNP more than doubled from $212 billion in 1945 to $503 billion in 1960, a staggering surge, though there were already signs that America’s newfound affluence would lead to unintended consequences. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith forewarned a lack of national investment in education in 1958’s The Affluent Society, arguing, “Here, in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway.”

Still, the American Dream resonated, with all its grand mythology, whether the son of an Arkansas nurse, a Texas oilman, or a New York real-estate developer. Then came Vietnam, a place and war that would divide America in a way unseen since the Civil War.

“Vietnam was a terribly important thing for this country,” the writer Robert Stone said in an interview. “It’s like a wound covered with scar tissue, or like a foreign body, a piece of shrapnel that the organism has built up a protective wall around, but it is embedded in our history; it is embedded in our definition of who we are. We will never get it out of there.”

There were plenty of reasons for a young person not to go to Vietnam, but for those who did, whether as draftees or volunteers (though the term “volunteer” deserves parsing, given the politics and intricacies of the draft) they returned to a society much unlike the one that’d wrought them. The odyssey of returning from combat has been messy and complex since ancient Greece, and these service-members were doing it alone, piecemeal. The easy labels at home seemed readymade, one of which veteran and writer Robert Timberg described as the “wild-eyed, unpredictable, short-fused, violence-prone, ticking time bomb.” Insertions into popular culture of that caricature and others soon followed, where they remain fixed and entrenched.

Though still in their twenties then, Baby Boomers—vets, protestors and the apathetic alike—had found the political stage that’d last them all their lives. The players sometimes changed, as did the backdrops and scenery. But the inherent conflicts about country, duty and justice never would.

Clinton received student deferments during the war, helping organize protests while at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard, a position that kept him stateside for the duration of his six years in uniform. Trump also received student deferments and later a medical deferment for heel spurs. The war certainly helped shape our future presidents’ worldviews in different ways. Their actions during the war would also affect their future political campaigns.

When Saigon fell in 1975, it was official: America had lost its first armed conflict. The hopes and ambitions of 1946 must’ve felt a world away. “Americans see history as a straight line,” journalist Frances FitzGerald wrote in her 1973 book on the war, Fire in the Lake. “And themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” Not any more.

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II. Then & Now

After Vietnam, Clinton, Bush and Trump all married and started families, as well as their careers. The first was a law school professor with his eye on becoming Arkansas’ attorney general. The second founded a small oil company in Texas while considering the political trail blazed by his prominent father. And the third was already a known landlord in New York, famous for his flamboyance and bartering, infamous for a suit brought by the Department of Justice charging anti-black bias.

Vietnam lingered in the American consciousness, but it was all still too close, and oh so raw. The hallmarks that would come to define our cultural interpretation of the war—movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, books like The Things They Carried — were years away. Allegories like Star Wars and M*A*S*H and The Forever War became substitutes, oblique reckonings while time attempted to mend, and distort, the collective memory. Meanwhile, Vietnam vets were fighting more than stereotypes in their transitions home—education and jobs serve as the bedrock for any generation of veterans, and organizations like the VFW and the American Legion were shunning the new influx. The VVA—Vietnam Veterans of America—would form as a response.

In the late 1970s and 80s, Baby Boomers entered the political arena. Veterans like Gray Davis, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, John McCain, Larry Pressler, Tom Ridge, Jim Webb and others became state officials and assistant cabinet secretaries, then governors and congressmen. Upwards of 60 percent of Congress had military backgrounds at that time, many World War II and Korea veterans. It seemed natural, inevitable, that a Vietnam veteran would someday assume the highest office in the land. It was American tradition.

Few could anticipate what some in politics now refer to as a “bamboo ceiling”—an aversion against electing President a combat veteran of Vietnam.

Bob Kerrey in 1992. Bob Dornan in 1996. Gore in 2000. Bob Smith in 2000. McCain in 2000 and 2008. John Kerry in 2004. Wesley Clark in 2004. Webb in 2016. All ran for President of the United States and lost. Some got closer than others, Gore, Kerry and McCain, most notably. For their efforts, Kerry and McCain had their distinguished combat records smeared during campaigns: the former in the notorious Swiftboating campaign, the latter by Karl Rove’s whisper operation involving false rumors about McCain’s mental stability. Gore mostly avoided these types of attacks, though dismissive jokes about his service as a military journalist were prevalent enough.

In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Barack Obama—who’d become our nation’s first post-Boomer President—made the case that America never moved past the dorm-room arguments of the 1960s. “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage,” Obama wrote about the political battles from his own youth.

“The arguments weren’t just in dorms,” my mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, recently told me in a phone conversation. A retired attorney, her formative years were during the tumult of the late ’60s, and she protested the war during college—no easy decision for a daughter of a Navy admiral and a staunch Baptist Navy wife. “Those conversations, those arguments, were happening at most every kitchen table, too,” my mom continued.

The peers of the McCains and Kerrys who hadn’t gone to Vietnam were making their own way through politics, though the war’s reach still managed to grip them. In 1992, Clinton’s Vietnam deferments proved a front-page story, conjuring up then-recent memories of Vice President Dan Quayle’s National Guard stink. The kitchen-table arguments from the ’60s had reached the national stage.

During the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, with Clinton’s poll numbers tumbling, his advisor James Carville—a Marine veteran—convinced the campaign to release a 1969 letter Clinton had written an ROTC commander that outlined his opposition to the war and his decision to try his chances with the draft. Carville reasoned that there were enough voters out there who would commiserate with the young Clinton’s choice, a gamble on many things, including a changed electorate.

It worked, likely saving Clinton’s presidential ambitions in the process. It also established solid proof that honorable military service wasn’t the criterion in American politics that it’d once been. Four years later, Clinton handily defeated Bob Dole, a decorated World War II hero. And in 2000 and 2004, Bush’s stateside National Guard time only sort of mattered, remembered now mostly for the Killian documents controversy that facilitated Dan Rather’s early retirement from CBS.

In 2016, Trump’s heel spurs were just another sideshow in a campaign full of them. Trump praised the military, but also bragged about not serving, slandered McCain and other POWs, and got into an ugly back-and-forth with a Gold Star family. And he won. What’d once been sacred territory in American politics is now anything but.

III. Then, Now & Tomorrow

“The presence or absence of a war record seemed to matter a great deal for a long time,” Jeffrey Toobin wrote in 2012 for The New Yorker, in an article about the Obama—Mitt Romney contest, the first presidential election since the 1940s to not include a military veteran. “Now … it doesn’t.”

Little has changed in the years since. Jim Webb, the only 2016 presidential candidate in either primary who’d served in combat, garnered much mockery when he answered a question about a past adversary he was proud of making, doing so with a smile: “I’d have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me,” Webb said. “But he’s not around right now to talk to.”

Anyone who’s spent a day in uniform identified that as dark gallows humor pervasive (and probably necessary) in military culture. It was received as anything but in most corners. For better or worse, that sort of talk isn’t something many Americans today recognize.

What comes next? On one hand, we’ve been a nation at war for 16 years running. On the other, due to the all-volunteer force, those battles have been waged by a small fragment of our society—one-half of 1 percent of our population serves in today’s military.

Through it all, Vietnam looms, a large shadow stapled to the heels of our history. Iraq was compared to Vietnam before the war there even began—prescient, perhaps, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe both. Afghanistan is “The Forever War,” a term with its origins in the allegorical Vietnam novel but also employed without any irony in 2017.

“History does not repeat itself,” Mark Twain may’ve quipped, “but it does rhyme.”

Whether due to the inherent politicization of the wars we fought in or something else, my generation of vets is already intrinsically partisan, with right-leaning and left-leaning nonprofits and advocacy groups dotting the landscape like molehills. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have pierced the halls of Congress, though their politics and worldviews can differ widely. Democrats Senator Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Seth Moulton, for example, are both Iraq veterans, something they share with Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst. The place of their proving grounds might well be where the similarities end, though. Listening to the discussion about the Iran nuclear deal, for one, revealed that the hawkish Cotton took away lessons from combat much different than those of his colleagues across the aisle.

Will an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran someday be commander in chief? Perhaps, though I’m personally dubious. We’ve entered a new phase in our nation’s relations to military service. Further, we understand better than ever in 2017 that the narratives of popular culture deeply affect and intersect with political narratives. Hence a president best known from reality television. The narratives of who a veteran is in contemporary America haven’t changed all that much since Vietnam, even if the pomp surrounding what a veteran is has. If a Global War on Terror veteran does someday lead the White House, it’ll be in spite of their time in uniform, not assisted by it.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam generation has become silver-haired elder statesmen, watching over a country trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It now seems unlikely—though not impossible—that any vet of their era is elected President. Does that matter? How could it not? Yet McCain’s almost single-handedly holding back Congress from authorizing torture in military interrogations. Kerry’s combat tour certainly shaped his time and decisions as Secretary of State. Vietnam continues to affect and influence America’s leaders, vets or otherwise. Maybe it always will.

Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there. Even if our presidents haven’t.