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Political War Vets

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Members of President Obama's Cabinet are three times more likely to have attended law school than boot camp. How things have changed since 2004, when Democrats were outraged that, in time of war, the GOP White House could be run by men with no combat experience. Saying that he was "reporting for duty," while speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., made much of his combat experience, as others criticized President George W. Bush for only serving in the Air National Guard during Vietnam. From the Senate floor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called Vice President Dick Cheney a "chicken hawk" in light of Cheney's five draft deferments during the Vietnam War.

In 2009, America is still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet somehow the military-background imperative is gone. President Obama never served in the military. Vice President Joe Biden, the Associated Press reported last year, received five student draft deferments during the Vietnam War. Just like Cheney.

As for the Obama Cabinet, according to administration biographies, only two of its 16 members -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates (originally a Bush appointee) and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki -- have military experience. Add the six officials that the Obama administration considers to be Cabinet rank, and the total remains. Two.

By contrast, the first Cabinet of George W. Bush included six military veterans -- seven when you add his first Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge.

A White House spokesperson noted that it has many vets within the administration -- such as National Security Adviser James Jones, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, Matthew Flavin at the Department of Defense, Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth and senior foreign policy adviser Mark Lippert.

I should note: I chose to compare Cabinets because the list is not subjective. And the Cabinet choices reflect the presidents' views as to who should govern this country and the type of people with whom they choose to surround themselves.

Why the difference in the makeup of veterans in the two administrations' Cabinets? Figure generational differences are at play, as some Obama appointees were too young for Vietnam-era service. I thought gender might account for the lower number of vets, but both Bush and Obama chose four women to serve in their first Cabinets.

Me? I've never served in the military. I also have never had a military-service litmus test for political candidates, although I do see military experience as a strong plus.

Yet the political conversation goes from partisans fiercely advocating for the need for military service, and then, poof, it's gone.

In 2004, Democrats were saluting Kerry and trashing Bush and Cheney for their lack of combat experience. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe called Bush "AWOL" during Vietnam -- unbothered by the fact that his former boss, President Bill Clinton, evaded National Guard service.

In 2008, only two Democrats running for president -- former Sen. Mike Gravel and Sen. Chris Dodd -- had any military experience. None of the top three contenders -- Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Edwards -- was a veteran.

In 2009, America is still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America has a president with no military experience and a vice president with five draft deferrals. But I don't think you'll be hearing the term "chicken hawk." And that's OK with me. It always was a phony issue.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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