History Lesson

Cincinnatus for President

Listen up, Wesley Clark! Here’s how generals get elected president.

History’s best advice: Look like a dove

Slate’s Michael Kinsley once described the early Al Gore as an old person’s idea of a young person. Similarly, you might say that Gen. Wesley Clark is a peacenik’s idea of a wartime candidate. It’s easy to suspect that the groundswell of enthusiasm for his Democratic presidential campaign springs from the belief that he alone can risk a bold antiwar stand because his military stars would inoculate him from being Dukakis-ized. (In January, Slate’s Chris Suellentrop assessed Clark.)

But to dismiss Clark’s candidacy as a liberal delusion is to misread the appeal of generals as presidential candidates. The 12 generals (six of them notable) who have become president have typically won support by styling themselves not as candidates of war but as candidates of peace. *

Americans have always felt ambivalent about military leaders in politics. On the one hand, they expect their leaders never to shrink from a fight, especially in crises. During the Cold War and again since 9/11, aggressive and even martial rhetoric—summoning national loyalty, demonizing enemies, talking tough—has rarely failed to please.

Yet the public’s taste for militarism has limits. The colonists’ battles with the British army instilled a lasting suspicion toward standing armies, and the founders explicitly kept the military under civilian control. Isolated from Europe, America aspired, in its preferred self-image, to be a peace-loving country. (Bloody policies toward the neighboring Indians were conveniently omitted from the picture.)

It’s no wonder that political generals have consistently invoked the Roman hero Cincinnatus —acting as if power is an obligation thrust upon them, not something they crave. In U.S. history, no one has been likened to the Roman hero more than George Washington, who answered the call to duty in the Revolutionary War, then returned to his farm, and then heeded the call again when the early republic sought a chief executive.

Generals since then have emulated Washington’s Cincinnatus image by fashioning themselves as nonpolitical public servants, high above the fray. They have tried to get others to draft them into public office rather than advertising their ambition. In 1836 and 1840, supporters of William Henry Harrison, who had won a smashing victory in the Indian wars at Tippecanoe in 1811, called him “The Farmer of North Bend” who was reluctantly willing “to leave his plough to save his country.” In 1848, Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero, used the slogan “Untrammeled with Party Obligations.”

So it has been more recently as well. In 1948, both parties courted Dwight Eisenhower as a presidential candidate. In the mid-1990s, Colin Powell pretended to be a political independent, encouraging talk of a draft, though he eventually came out as a Republican. Today Clark—who similarly denied being a Democrat for longer than was plausible—seems to bask in the draft-Clark committees that are sprouting up. By playing Cincinnatus, Clark and other military chiefs can radiate purity and appeal to the public’s distrust of power-grasping career politicians.

Clark also follows another tradition of political generals. In America, soldier-candidates typically succeed not just when they fashion themselves above petty politics, but also when, like George Washington, they use their experience in war to show how much they value peace.

Sometimes it’s a tough sell. Andrew Jackson had to overcome a reputation for being brutal and dictatorial. Often compared by critics to Napoleon, he was attacked by opponents for executing six of his own soldiers as punishment after the Battle of New Orleans. But by the time he ran for president in 1828, he was 61, had served in the Senate and retired (Cincinnatus-like) to his farm, and was mellowing.

Ulysses S. Grant likewise earned a reputation during the Civil War as a ferocious commander, and critics faulted him for the many deaths his troops incurred. But his front-line achievements gave him credibility as a peacemaker, and Americans cheered his magnanimity after his victory at Appomattox. When Union soldiers in their camps began firing rounds in celebration, Grant stopped the gloating, declaring that “the rebels are our countrymen again.” Three years later, when he accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he enhanced his reputation for charity by ending his letter with the famous line, “Let us have peace.” A policy of reconciliation was central to his candidacy.

Eisenhower, too, placed peacemaking at the forefront of his campaign. “I shall go to Korea,” he promised just before Election Day in 1952, pledging to resolve a conflict that had become stalemated and unpopular. The general’s benign demeanor, seemingly tailor-made for the age of affluence, contrasted sharply with that of another World War II general with political aspirations, Douglas MacArthur. Although beloved on the far right, MacArthur was too closely linked in the popular mind with the professional military and too warlike in his public persona to win over many voters in peacetime.

Indeed, while peace-seeking generals have often fared well, MacArthur embodies the strain of generals who failed in politics because of an excess of militarism. Winfield Scott, although a great general, had few other credentials to offer when he ran as the Whig Party nominee in 1852 and was easily caricatured as a career military man, fond of ornate uniforms and army ceremony; “Old Fuss and Feathers” was his revealing nickname. Civil War veteran Winfield Scott Hancock, named for his luckless predecessor, ran as the Democratic nominee in 1880 and similarly struggled to forge beyond his war record. When Democrats mocked the Republican nominee, James A. Garfield, for retiring early from the army, the Republicans shot back with a booklet called “A Record of the Statemanship and Political Achievements of General Winfield Scott Hancock. … ” The pages were blank.

Wesley Clark, as pundits have noted, faces many obstacles if he wants to be president, including the lack of a campaign team and a late start in fund raising. But he has mastered the two historical requirements: He doesn’t act as if he needs the job, and he doesn’t act as if he wants war. For a general, that’s a good start.

Correction, Sept. 30, 2003: The article originally stated that 10 American generals have become president. Technically 12 have. The article left out two men who were promoted to general during the Civil War, though not for their battlefield accomplishments. Andrew Johnson was made a brigadier general when he was military governor of Tennessee, and Chester Arthur was a brigidier general while serving as quartermaster general of New York state. (Return to the corrected item.)