Presidents, the Military, and Stagecraft

Dana Milbank starts an otherwise thoughtful piece with a rather sophomoric attempt at humor:

obama-usmc-shirtFirst, the good news: President Obama will not be wearing a flight suit when he addresses the cadets at West Point on Tuesday night. Nor will he wear a bomber jacket with the presidential seal on the chest, nor even, the White House promises, a windbreaker with the word ARMY in big letters.

“You can count on no military garb,” assures Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.

Ha!  Except that, of course, President Bush didn’t wear of thing when he addressed cadets at West Point — he wore a suit.  Like many presidents before him, he wore military garb when meeting troops out in the field, whether it was a leather jacket or the infamous flight suit.   Which, incidentally, was incredibly well received at the time by the sailors and earned by the former Air Force fighter pilot.

Whether President Obama will follow suit — or has in the past — I don’t know.   The closest I’ve been able to find through a quick search of Google Images is the pic of him in a USMC PT shirt at right.  I’m not sure what the occasion was — the gentlemen in the background are not sporting Marine haircuts — but presume it was appropriate.

One of the common complaints of George W. Bush’s presidency was his tendency to politicize the military and turn troops into props. The man seemed to make more appearances before military audiences than Bob Hope did. But now Obama is antagonizing many in his party with an expected announcement that he is sending more troops to Afghanistan, and, to rub it in, he’s making the announcement at one of Bush’s favorite military locations: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — the very birthplace, seven years ago, of the Bush Doctrine.

Obama’s fondness for audiences in uniform is not yet in the same category as his predecessor’s. Beyond the infamous “Top Gun” landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the Thanksgiving turkey he served to troops in Iraq, Bush routinely used military-themed backdrops for his speeches: fighter jets, camouflage nets, American flags, military bands and, best of all, thousands of troops applauding or shouting “Hoo-ah” at the right moments.

Still, Obama’s flirtation with military imagery should be of concern to his allies on the left, who are already unhappy with the hawkish direction his Afghanistan policy has taken.

I’m generally not a fan of politicians, even presidents, using troops — or schoolchildren, another pet peeve — as props for their political speeches.   But Milbank is lumping dissimilar things together.  Surely, visiting troops deployed to a war zone at Thanksgiving is an appropriate gesture by the commander-in-chief?  Certainly, Bush’s visit was joyously received.  (As, incidentally, were similar visits by John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.)

The “Mission Accomplished” speech will live in infamy, of course, because of how the Iraq War unfolded afterwards.  But the sailors and Marines of the Lincoln had in fact accomplished their mission.  Were they being used as stageprops in a political victory lap by the president?  Yes.  But they were also being publicly praised for their service.

Presidential addresses to the uniformed military were relatively rare before Bush. A tally by George Mason University found that in past years, presidents sometimes spoke to military groups only once (Bill Clinton in 1993, Richard Nixon in 1969), twice (Gerald Ford in 1974) or not at all (Ronald Reagan in 1985). But Bush gave “far more” such speeches, including 13 in 2005 alone.

It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Nixon, none of those presidents were in office during a major war, much less two simultaneous ones.   That rather changes things.

I’m a little more concerned with the use of West Point and its cadets for these venues, since they’re the future junior leaders of our force rather than troops in harm’s way.  The Bush Doctrine speech and tonight’s will doubtless be political as well as tactical.  Then again, the two are necessarily intermingled.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Wayne Travers Jr. says:

    I am less concerned with our current Commander in Chief wearing military clothing and more concerned about his rendering of a hand salute.

    I would prefer a president with no prior military experience to forego this gesture altogether and I am sure most veterans and current service members would agree.

    In the president’s defense, he must have received tutoring in saluting because he has improved. His earlier presidential efforts in returning salutes were an affront to military personnel everywhere.

  2. steve says:

    You forget to mention Bush’s attempts to tie his policies with the “supporting the troops” meme. It worked very well with the MSM. I was not reading you then. Did it work at OTB also?

    Was it Exum who referred (pre CNAS) to the childish faith of the neocons in our military to accomplish anything? Bush may have had real feelings about our military, but I think he used it freely for political purposes. Lionizing the military and trying to associate it with the Republican party, heaven knows there are lots of military willing to go along, was part of the plan.

    Steve

  3. James Joyner says:

    Bush may have had real feelings about our military, but I think he used it freely for political purposes. Lionizing the military and trying to associate it with the Republican party, heaven knows there are lots of military willing to go along, was part of the plan.

    I wrote a post called Petraeus Fetishism back in July 2007 making a similar point. By that point, Bush was out of political capital and trying to use the prestige of the military, Petraeus in particular, to buy more time for the war.

  4. just me says:

    I think one other thing that separates Bush from past presidents other than not being a president during war time, is that the ease of travel with regards to getting there and staying safe is very different.

    It is simply easier to fly to a combat zone, give a speech and do a meet and greet then fly away than it used to be.

    I am also not convinced that either Bush or Obama were using the troops, I think in their own way they may see their speeches and visits as a way of saying thanks.

    I will be honest and say that if I were currently serving, I would find the president coming for a visit and/or a speech exciting if I were able to attend, so I guess I am not sure there is truly malice where some would like to see it.

    I do think there is likely a fine line between saying thanks and honoring the military and using them-but I think it may be one of those lines in the area of defining porn, than a nice bright line where everyone agrees.

    I would personally rather see more speeches in front of military troops than school children. It is one thing to give a speech to adults, who vote and can decide for themselves if they were being used, but quite another to drag a few kids in as props, when they aren’t voters, and may not have enough awareness or discernment to know if they are being used.

  5. Jim says:

    James,

    I am not sure I trust Dana Milbank – his appearance on Olberman wearing a orange safety jacket after Cheny shot his friend was over the top.

    His quote compares single years of Presidents not their overall terms. Yes Bill Clinton addressed the military once in 1993 but how many times in 1994 – 2000? One clue that the list may be selective is the portion on Reagen….if he had no military addresses in his two terms why include a specific year? I suspect Dana highlighted the data that made President Bush look as bad as possible.

    Presidential addresses to the uniformed military were relatively rare before Bush. A tally by George Mason University found that in past years, presidents sometimes spoke to military groups only once (Bill Clinton in 1993, Richard Nixon in 1969), twice (Gerald Ford in 1974) or not at all (Ronald Reagan in 1985). But Bush gave “far more” such speeches, including 13 in 2005 alone.

  6. just me says:

    Jim I think you make a good point, I did a quick google with “Reagan addresses to troops” and one of the hits links to what amounts to an obit with a picture at the bottom with the caption:

    President Ronald Reagan addresses U.S. troops at Camp Liberty Bell in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Nov. 13, 1983.

    Reagan is even wearing a bomber jacket in the photo.

    The caption just above that is a photo of Reagan visiting the USS Iowa during a Statue of Liberty celebration. Doesn’t say anything about a speech or address, but it is apparent Reagan did make appearances with troops that got media attention in years other than 1983.

  7. sam says:

    I would prefer a president with no prior military experience to forego this gesture altogether and I am sure most veterans and current service members would agree.

    I think his salute is ok, but the fact that he does it uncovered is sometimes a bit jarring…