CJR has a piece out criticizing the media for its handling (or, it suggests, creation) of the flap around Wes Clark’s comments about John McCain’s service. But what about the merit of the basic argument that Clark seemed to be making: How well does being a military commander in wartime qualify a person to be Commander-in-Chief?
Though I’m no historian, I do have access to The Google, and a little bit of time on my hands, so I started poking around.
Here’s what I found: At least a dozen U.S. Presidents have served as generals during war time. And as a lot, their subsequent performance as Commander-in-Chief wasn’t all that impressive. If you take as basic reference an ideologically balanced survey of historians, political scientists and legal scholars that the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society did in 2000, it turns out that only one of the 12–George Washington (Revolutionary War)–qualifies as “great.” Just two of them–Andrew Jackson (War of 1812) and Dwight Eisenhower (WWII)–were “near great.” Two were rated average: Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur (both of the Civil War). Three were below average: Zachary Taylor (Mexican War), Ulysses Grant (Civil War) and Benjamin Harrison (Civil War). And two were flat-out “failures”: Franklin Pierce (Mexican War) and Andrew Johnson (Civil War).
The remaining two–William Henry Harrison (War of 1812) and James Garfield (Civil War)–served too little time in office to be evaluated.
So what do we take from this? It would seem that running an Army and running a country require different sets of skills. And that military service, in and of itself, is more a testament to a presidential candidate’s character than to his qualifications.