George H.W. Bush: last in a line of American presidential military heroes

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In this file photo taken on Dec. 10, 2006, former U.S. President George Bush salutes shortly after arriving at a military airbase in Bangkok. Bush died Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. He was 94. | Getty Images

The first president of the United States was a military man. General George Washington not only led the Continental Army but as a young soldier fought in the French and Indian War for the British.

We get that much in elementary school.

What might be news is that most American presidents were in the military: 26 of the 44 men who have served as president also served their country in uniform in some capacity. (Because Grover Cleveland’s two terms were interrupted by the election of Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland is considered both the 22nd and 24th presidents, thus the number of men who were president always lags one behind the number of the presidency; Donald Trump, therefore, is the 44th man to hold the office and the 45th president.)


With the death Friday of George H.W. Bush, the most recent American president who fought, this is a good moment to examine the link between the military and the Oval Office.

Washington might have set the precedent of serving two terms, but his military background certainly wasn’t a model: he was followed by two decades of non-veterans. Washington left office in 1797, the next military man to be in the White House was in 1817, with the swearing in of James Monroe, who had dropped out of William and Mary College to fight in the American Revolution in 1775 and was wounded in the Battle of Harlem Heights (though James Madison, while not in the military, saw more combat than many who were, as we will see).

Military heroism helped a number of presidents win office. Andrew Jackson was of humble origins — he was the first president born in a log cabin —and gained fame by his victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the war of 1812. William Henry Harrison was so linked to a particular battle that it could serve as his name — his 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” refers to an 1811 battle against a confederation of Native Americans at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in Indiana.

Many presidents not generally remembered as soldiers in fact served — Abraham Lincoln was a captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. And sometimes “service” is a broad term — seven American presidents claimed to have fought during the Civil War, though that includes Andrew Johnson, who was military governor of Tennessee in 1862.

As the presidency is by definition a political position, the issue of exactly what kind of military service a president tendered becomes important. Seeing combat is the general measure of worth, but not always. Dwight Eisenhower, the first World War II vet elected president, graduated West Point in 1915 and was never under fire in his nearly 40-year military career, yet that was not held against the Supreme Allied Commander.

Ike was in the Army; six of the seven other World War II-era presidents were in the Navy, starting with John Kennedy, who turned his heroism aboard PT-109 into a best-selling book that helped rocket him to the presidency. Lyndon Johnson was already a congressman when he entered the Naval Reserve — there is some question whether his sole moment of combat experience was real or prevarication.

Richard Nixon began the war in Iowa, despite its lack of a coast, then was transferred to the Pacific, where he never saw action either. Gerald Ford was on an aircraft carrier and won 10 battle stars. Jimmy Carter was still a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy during World War II, serving on submarines and battleships in the late 1940s and 1950s and never saw action. Ronald Reagan — who many think of as never having served — enlisted in the Army Reserve in a cavalry unit in 1937 and was called to active duty in 1942 but was classified as 4F (deemed unfit for military service) due to bad eyesight and remained stateside.

The hugely unpopular Vietnam War can be seen as causing a break between the presidency and military service, which stopped being the automatic boon it once was. War hero George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, who sat out Vietnam at Oxford. John Kerry fought with honor in Vietnam, yet his experience was turned against him by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” and he lost in 2004 to George W. Bush, whose tenure in the Texas Air National Guard was so minimal that some questioned whether he is entitled to call himself a veteran. POW war hero John McCain in turn lost to Barack Obama, with no military connection whatsoever.

And of course our most unusual president, Donald Trump, avoided service in Vietnam and was elected after denigrating our military and mocking POWs. Though it is important to remember America has had shameful moments before. On one notorious occasion, seeing combat and being in the military were definitely not a point of pride.

Only one president, James Madison, filled his commander-in-chief role under fire, and he did so with notable ineptitude. On Aug. 24, 1814, Madison assumed command of an artillery battery north of Blandensburg, Maryland, and directed its guns on the British as they advanced toward Washington, D.C. The American forces, though greater, were routed. The president fled, the capital was put to the torch, and the battle became “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” and “the most humiliating episode in American history.”

Until now, of course.

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