Since George Washington became president, war veterans have played a disproportionate role in American life, culture and politics. A dozen generals have become president, and several times — in 1848, when Lewis Cass ran against Zachary Taylor; in 1852, when Franklin Pierce ran against Winfield Scott; and in 1880, when James Garfield ran against Winfield Scott Hancock — two generals opposed each other for the presidency.
Every president from 1933 to 1991, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946, was involved in World War II. For a long period, a majority of senators were World War II veterans. Korean War veterans such as Charles Rangel of New York and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, along with Vietnam War veterans such as Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona, have played major roles on and off Capitol Hill.
Now, with World War II, Korea and Vietnam retreating into the past, a new era of political veterans is dawning, and a group of activists is mobilizing to recruit Iraq and Afghan veterans, along with veterans of national-service programs like the Peace Corps, to run for office at a time when trust in government is at alarming lows.
“The lack of leadership is not about the lack of leaders,” said Emily Cherniack, founder and executive director of New Politics. “We have leaders. They’re just not running for office, because they’re not part of the political ecosystem.”
One of them who did run is Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents this northeastern colonial corner of Massachusetts in the House with an unusually attractive profile: four tours in Iraq as a infantry officer (including two as a special assistant to Gen. David Petraeus), followed by civilian tours at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.
“I think about three of the roles the Marines talk about — honor, courage, commitment — and I know that we need all three in politics, especially the element about making a commitment to your country over your own interests or your party’s interests,” said Moulton, a Democrat elected in 2014. He said serving in Congress was “the first job I’ve had since the Marines when I truly feel that I am working not for my paycheck but to serve the people.”
That echoes the perspective of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led American forces in Afghanistan and who said in an interview that the New Politics effort could help “infuse” American political life with the sense of sacrifice and selflessness that is implicit in military service. He has given strong support to the group.
“This is a great idea,” former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, said in a telephone conversation the other day. “These people are respected. They did what they were asked to do and made a sacrifice for their country. In our case, we weren’t Democrats and Republicans; we were veterans — and friends.”
The election of Donald J. Trump prompted what Cherniack called an “onslaught” of interest by veterans in running for office, many of whom, she added, said “they didn’t fight for their country to see it split apart.” She went on: “They have a real mission, a sense of purpose. They may be Democrats or Republicans, but they don’t think in a partisan way. They’re in this for service.”
This is not the first time a generation of veterans, matured by military service and willing to fight domestically for the values they fought for globally, set their sights on political office. Two Navy second lieutenants, Richard M. Nixon of California and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, ran for the House in 1946, the first elections after World War II. They dominated American political life for decades and collided in the 1960 presidential election.
Two other World War II veterans would be tied forever as public servants and as political rivals. Dole, of Kansas, and George H.W. Bush, of Connecticut, would serve consecutive terms as chairs of the Republican National Committee during difficult days in the Watergate era. They followed each other as Republican vice-presidential nominees. They competed against each other twice, in 1980 and 1988, for the GOP presidential nomination. They served as consecutive Republican presidential nominees. And then, in their 90s, they reached a gentle rapprochement and today serve as symbols of the selflessness of service.
In the unlikely location of Battle Creek, Michigan, can be found the ultimate testament to the role veterans have played in American politics. There sits a complex of 21 buildings on 24 acres called the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center. It is named for Dole, 93 years old and a Republican, and two deceased Democratic senators, Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and Philip Hart of Michigan.
The three were hospitalized on one floor in a onetime sanitarium after being wounded, Hart during D-Day and Inouye and Dole in combat in Italy. It was there, in a facility that once treated Mary Todd Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, that the young Inouye introduced the young Dole to the game of bridge, and where the two — one with an arm blasted apart, another an amputee with a stomach injury from a grenade explosion — dreamed about running for Congress.
“When I first came to Congress, there were a lot of veterans,” Dole said. “It provided a collegial group that bridged party. That’s the most important thing. You got acquainted with people you might otherwise never know. This gave you a chance to build some friendships, and to build bridges.”
New Politics supported five candidates in 2014, winning three of the races, including Moulton’s. Last year, the group supported 23 candidates, with 17 making it through primaries and 13 winning general elections. One of them, Mike Gallagher, a Marine with a Ph.D., now sits in the House as a Wisconsin Republican. He twice served as a commander of intelligence teams in Al Anbar Province in Iraq.
“Military service gives people a firsthand understanding about what it’s like to be asked to take on serious responsibility,” said James E. Wright, a former Marine who served as president of Dartmouth College and is the author of a history of the American veteran. “All of them today are volunteers, and they all have demonstrated their determination to make a difference.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.