Now, every governor is a 'commander'

Are we supposed to salute Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin? A look at how Arizona Sen. John McCain is militarizing the quest for the presidency.
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Are we supposed to salute Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin? A look at how Arizona Sen. John McCain is militarizing the quest for the presidency.

John McCain has to play to his strengths, but he seems to have forgotten one important thing: the presidency is a civilian job.

We have two campaigns going on simultaneously. Barrack Obama is running for the presidency of the United States. McCain is running for Commander-in-Chief. You'd never know they both are civilian positions. Republicans tend to play up all things military, but it's been getting downright silly when GOP Vice Presidential pick Gov. Sarah Palin is touted by McCain for her experience as "commander" of the Alaskan National Guard.

I can't remember this being played up in the campaigns of other governors who have run for the presidency. George W. Bush was famous for neglecting his duties in the Texas Air Guard while John McCain was rotting in his Hanoi prison cell. Bill Clinton was known for ducking the draft in Arkansas. Ronald Reagan looked great in a cavalry uniform in Hollywood. And Jimmy Carter didn't need to brag since he'd actually been a submarine commander during the Cold War--who cared what the Georgia militia was doing (eating goober peas, perhaps).

So what's next? Are we to think that Washington Governor Christine Gregoire is doing John Wayne duty by calling on the state guard to sandbag flooding rivers? Is this the new San Juan Hill? Will Gary Locke begin to regale us with old soldier memories of calling in the troops to fight Eugene anarchists at WTO? Should we snap a salute to Gen. Mike Lowry, hero of the the Battle of Roving Hands? The idea that a state's chief executive is a quasi-military strongman is absurd, but it is one of the trickle-down effects of the last 8 years.

Bush--especially the cocky "Mission Accomplished" Bush--took delight in strutting his military stuff as Commander-in-Chief, posing in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier deck, or wearing military-syle jackets when speaking to the troops. Presidents used to bend over backward to reassure people they were non-military guys--determinedly showcasing suits and ties to convey the fact that they get that America--even in war time--is a civilian enterprise. Guys like Castro, they wore the fatigues.

Sure, we've elected plenty of high-ranking military officers to the presidency, but it's usually been a reward for waging a successful war, not plotting the next one. We have trusted former generals with the peace: Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Ike. Success in war is a great resume item, but there's long been a sense that the job in a democracy is one of people's servant, not sword-waver.

In fact one of the office's most essential responsibilities is to counterbalance military power (the Second Amendment alone will not work, it's out-gunned). Remember it was Eisenhower who warned us that "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Americans, even jingoistic ones, used to be more skeptical of the military model. Remember after Reagan was shot there was outrage when Secretary of State Gen. Alexander Haig declared himself "in charge" at the White House? Forget the fact that he was conveniently ignoring the statutory order of presidential succession. What really bugged people, I believe, was the fact that Haig was seen by many as a guy too eager to dust off his chest ribbons and take charge.

And certainly in the 19th and even early 20th century, it was often a disqualifying attribute to be seen as wanting the presidency too much. Would-be presidents had to be asked, cajoled, begged, even drafted by one's party--or at least appear to be. Campaigns were conducted from the porch. Let the people and party decide. Visible ambition was a negative; assuming command an undemocratic presumption.

John McCain comes from military royalty--multiple generations of dedicated officers. It's something to be proud of. But the over-emphasis on the military aspects of the job, the hyper-inflating of Palin's resume to make being a state governor akin to being a military commander is preposterous. You thought Michael Dukakis in a tank looked silly, what about 50 governors in junta hats?

Military resume inflation is of a piece with over-hyping every threat to our county as a call to arms. The meme pushed by McCain sells a neo-con world view that suggests perpetual war--that every hostile act abroad is ultimately targeted at us, that every positive act by us is part of our larger strategy to transform the world in our image.

It is a total war mentality that logically demands a military view of executive power. The president can now take the country to war without the Constitutional approval of approval Congress. He or she has new powers to fight terrorism and employ torture and jail "enemies" indefinitely. Civilians are second-class citizens in the politics of endless war where the all clear signal is never sounded.

Two men are running for president, but they are running for two different offices.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.