November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face. Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship. Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.
Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.
Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.
White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.
The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.
White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.
The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.
Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.
Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.
“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.
1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since. The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.
By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:
“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”
No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.
Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.
This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.
In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.
Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.
Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.
It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.
The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.
Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.
But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.
As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.
Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.
The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.
But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.
Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.
And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.
Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.
Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.
In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty-four years today. It is sad to reflect that he has now been dead longer than he was ever alive. Although his reputation has undeniably been tarnished by revelations about his private life in the years since, he remains, broadly speaking, a much admired figure renowned for his eloquence and charm but also for his cool head at a time of extreme international tension, particularly during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is perhaps for this reason that American Republicans, displeased with their poor score sheet in producing decent US presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bush boys, Trump – you see my point?”) have adopted a new tactic: adopting JFK as one of their own. If Kennedy were alive today, they argue, he would not be a Democrat as he was in reality, but a Republican. One author has even produced a book “Kennedy, Conservative” based on this theory.
Some may argue it is a bit silly to try and assume what someone no longer able to speak up for himself would now be thinking. Some might argue the US political system is more fluid than some others, party-wise anyway. After all, Nixon oversaw Detente. The first Bush’s presidency coincided with the end of the Cold War. This does not make them liberals.
Others might feel that suggesting JFK would now be a member of the party headed by Donald Trump is rather dishonouring Kennedy’s memory. They would be right.
But here are a number of other reasons why claiming JFK for the Republican cause is fundamentally absurd:
JFK on communism
Kennedy was definitely anti-communist, sometimes to his detriment, launching the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and beginning the slow escalation of the war in Vietnam. In his anticommunism he is no different from every other post-war Democratic president. Consider: Truman started the war in Korea and established post-war containment policy. Johnson oversaw the disastrous full escalation of the war in Vietnam. Carter presided over an unprecedented military build-up (which Reagan continued).
JFK and the NRA
JFK was indeed, a member of the National Rifle Association. It was not then, the eccentric assortment of powerful but militant right wingers that it is today.
JFK and taxes
Kennedy did reduce taxes to help stimulate economic growth. In this, he is only as conservative as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (“the tax cuts in the stimulus package, for example, were arguably the largest in history” writes author Robert Schlesinger). JFK’s belief in tax cuts was routed in the context of the times and his Keynesian values too: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He also reduced the top rate of tax to 65%, far higher than it is today.
JFK and the rich
It is sometimes claimed the Kennedy family’s immense wealth makes him an unlikely Democrat. Of course, if this was true now, it was then. And it wasn’t true then. Many rich people have been Democrats e.g. Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Soros. It’s irrelevant.
JFK and race
JFK was firmly in favour of desegregation and pushed hard for civil rights. He would doubtless have been as delighted by Obama’s election in 2008 as his brother Ted was. He would be disgusted by Trump’s cheap, racist anti-Mexican jibes.
JFK and abortion
Kennedy is often referred to as “anti-abortion” by those who want to claim him for the Right. In fact, he never made any pubic pronouncements on the subject.
JFK and social programmes
JFK’s short administration paved the way for the “Great Society” and social programmes such as Medicare.
JFK and walls
Kennedy spoke eloquently against the division and unhappiness, socially divisive walls can create.
Like most right minded people, he would be disgusted by what the Trump administration is doing today. He was a Democrat then and most would assuredly be so today.
Seven out of nine of those who died lived past 80 years old (Harold Wilson and Sir Anthony Eden both died, aged 79).
Six of the remaining seven made it to 85 (Attlee was 84).
Four of the remainder made it to 90.
Macmillan, Home and Callaghan all died aged 92. Churchill was 90. (Heath, 89 and Thatcher, 87 did not).
Four out of nine post-war prime ministers have thus lived into their nineties. Does being PM increase your lifespan? Or do the sort of people who become Prime Ministers just tend to live longer? It should also be remembered that not all UK Prime Ministers have had privileged backgrounds (Thatcher, Heath and Wilson did not, nor did James Callaghan who lived longer than anyone else).
In the US, four post-World War II former presidents have lived into their nineties, two of whom, Jimmy Carter and George H.W Bush are still alive. Bush is 91, Carter though seriously ill is 90. Gerald Ford, the longest lived former US president and Ronald Reagan both died aged 93.
Generally, the US trend is less impressive partly because President Kennedy was assassinated while still in his forties and his successor Lyndon Johnson died prematurely following a heart attack at 64.
But overall the stats are still impressive: Hoover died aged 88 (he was not a post-war World War II president – he was in office from 1929 to 1933 – but died in the post-war era). Harry S. Truman died aged 88, Dwight D. Eisenhower was 78 and Richard Nixon, 81. Since 1945, seven former presidents have made it to eighty (as opposed to four who did not) and four have made it to ninety.
Generally, for whatever reason, being a world leader does seem to be good for your health.
We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity? Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?
Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.
If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.
Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.
Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.
General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.
But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.
Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw, Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.
Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.
Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.
Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.
In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.
Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft. But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.
Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.
Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?
Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?
Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:
1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.
2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.
2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.
As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.
So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.
In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.
Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.
Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.
Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.
Fifty year have now passed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy and one thing is obvious: the US Democratic Party has never escaped the ghost of his memory. True, no member of the Kennedy family has ever been on the presidential ticket in the years since (Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, came the closest as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972). But consciously or unconsciously, the Democrats have repeatedly opted for the man they have perceived to be closest to the charismatic, idealistic Kennedy ideal as their candidate for the presidency. The fact that the Kennedy name has since been tarnished by revelations about his prolific sex life, his dealings with the Mafia and by harsh reassessments of his presidency has made no difference.
Admittedly, Lyndon B. Johnson, the tall garrulous Texan succeeded Kennedy in 1963 could not have been less like the affluent charming young president. Hubert Humphrey, who went down to a narrow defeat against JFK’s old foe Richard Nixon in 1968 was hardly a dead ringer for Kennedy either. Like Johnson, he had even run against JFK for the nomination in 1960 and been defeated. But Johnson, Humphrey and George McGovern, the party’s candidate in 1972 were all essentially Kennedy substitutes picked simply because the real thing was unavailable. Had he not been assassinated when he was on the verge of winning the nomination in 1968, Bobby Kennedy not Humphrey would have been nominated and perhaps beaten Nixon in 1968. Likewise Ted Kennedy, the remaining son would most likely have been the candidate in 1972 had it not been for the scandal attached to the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969. History could have been very different.