For more than two centuries, American presidents have come into politics after testing themselves on the fields of battle. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were heroic field generals; John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter were Navy men.
Since World War II, only one president - Bill Clinton - failed to serve in the military.
Now consider the current crop of White House wannabes. Only one - Sen. John McCain, the long-shot Republican and shot-down fighter pilot imprisoned in Hanoi - would qualify as a war hero. Three others, including GOP front-runner Gov. George W. Bush, spent their Vietnam years in National Guard units. Vice President Al Gore served in Vietnam, but as an Army journalist.
In the wake of that war - which disillusioned a generation of Americans - the nation is producing fewer political leaders who have seen active service in the armed forces. And these days, with increasing recruiting deficits and smaller, localized wars leading to dwindling numbers of veterans, it's a trend that's likely to continue.
While some citizens are concerned about what effect the loss might have on political leadership, polls show that most are ambivalent. It's a sign, say analysts, of Americans' changing views of the presidency.
"It's a redefinition of a person's readiness to be commander in chief," says John Zogby, president of Zogby International polling group in Utica, N.Y. "It used to be we expected the future president to have faced the fire in the field. Now it's being replaced by facing the fire of the heated TV camera and the press corps."
One poll, conducted by Mr. Zogby, asked Democrats and Republicans how important it was for a presidential nominee of their party to have served in the military or reserves. Some 28 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of Republicans said military service was very important.
To others, however, the issue cuts to the core of what it means to be president. "It takes a higher motive to fight a war, laying your life on the line for a higher cause," says Bruce Buchanan, presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's what people want from their leaders."
"I feel uneasy about what we lose here," adds Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "The military ... takes us away from the cult of the individual that infiltrates society."
Governor Bush's record
Feeling the most heat is Governor Bush, who critics say got preferential treatment in gaining an officer's commission in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968.
In court testimony during an ongoing civil lawsuit, former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes said a Bush family friend, Sid Adger, asked him to help young Bush get into the guard after Bush graduated from Yale University. Mr. Barnes testified that he complied with this request, at a time when the elder George Bush was serving as a congressman.
Selective Service records show that Bush was accepted into the guard after an interview with Air Guard Commander Col. Walter Staudt - ahead of 150 applicants. He was accepted into pilot training after scoring in the 25th percentile on his pilot aptitude test - the lowest allowed by the guard.
Guard officials deny that Bush got special treatment getting into the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard.
Bush says, "I'm proud of my service, and any allegation that my dad asked for special favors is simply not true.... I didn't ask anybody to help me get to the guard either."
While Bush's easy entry into the guard has drawn the most attention, Bush's early departure in 1973 - seven months before the end of his five-year tour - has also raised eyebrows. Bush said he received permission to leave because he had been accepted at the Harvard Business School, and because the jets his units had flown, single-seat F-102s, were being replaced by two-seat F-4s.
Guard officials say it was perfectly legal, and "not uncommon," to give servicemen an "early out." "There was a downsizing going on in the military in the early '70s," says Col. John Stanford, spokesman for the Texas Air National Guard in Austin. While pilots had a service requirement after finishing costly pilot training, "that doesn't negate the military's willingness to accommodate."
Criticism, but little outcry
Jack Hooper, a historian at the National Guard headquarters in Arlington, Va., says that if Bush had done anything illegal, it would have come out by now. "Especially in a state known for hard-hitting politics, if there's something that was going to come out that hasn't," he chuckles, "I salute him."
Of course, there are other parts of Bush's service record that irk critics. Democrats note, for instance, his contention that he was willing to risk his life in Vietnam had his unit been called. His guard application, however, bore a check mark in a box indicating he didn't want to serve overseas.
Still, many Americans seem to be less interested in the personal past of candidates and more interested in their future policies.
"As veterans, our main concern is where do the candidates stand on those issues that affect veterans and issues of national defense, not whether they've served," says Glen Gardner, who served in a Marine air unit from 1968 to 1969. "We've got professional people in the DOD [Department of Defense] to advise the president on military issues. That's what they're there for."
Besides, military service is no longer a guarantee of character, adds Mike McMahon, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. "I'm not happy about [that], but there's not a whole lot I can do about it either."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society