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Meeting with about a dozen conservative writers in late September, President Bush unwittingly made the case for electing John McCain as president of the United States.
Here’s what happened. The aunt of a military medic currently serving in Baghdad asked the president if he’s done anything to encourage Americans to volunteer for service. He replied: “No.” He quickly revised his answer: “Well, I guess I have — I supported the advertising budgets of the Army and the Marines. But I have urged people to serve the nation in a variety of ways; urged people to feed the hungry or house the homeless. I thanked people for going to help rebuild homes in New Orleans, praised the Peace Corps.”
If a group can mentally cringe, I think we all did that around the table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. As important as feeding the hungry is — and it is — it’s not the same as risking your life for your country at war. I don’t think the president meant to equate these things, and I am certain he did not intend to demean military service in any way — he had just spoken at length and with great devotion about military families and the sacrifices they make; he hadn’t expected the question, and might have felt awkward in answering it. That he did not serve in Vietnam has been an issue for him and so he felt like he couldn’t ask men and women to give up their lives and volunteer. And yet, he is now commander-in-chief during this war on radical Islam — a role he takes deadly seriously — so his office requires that he do precisely that.
A little later, the president remarked to us: “I haven’t specifically said, I want you to go in the military. There are plenty of inducements for young men and women to make that decision. I’ve been generally — I’ve been kind of on a — I haven’t been specific about how I asked people to serve, I’ve just asked them to serve.”
As he continued, the president was all about the Beatitudes, but he needed a bit of Uncle Sam “I Want You” to go with it: “And Americans are serving. . . . The faith-based and community-based programs are robust; they really are in our country. Is there more we can all do? You bet there is. But I feel pretty comfortable with the approach I have taken. I don’t think a mandatory service would be effective, nor would it work. I do think calling people to serve does work.”
I don’t think that’s enough. We’re in a war where we’re occasionally asked to shop to help the economy; we’re not hearing a real call to arms. We need one.
Pete Hegseth, the articulate head of Veterans for Freedom — some folks who know true wartime sacrifice — agrees with me. He tells me, “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t call on Americans to serve their country, in uniform, in this extremely important war. President Bush understands the stakes of the fight in Iraq and should call on the best and brightest to serve on the battlefield. That message, to me, seems like a no-brainer.”
Buzz Patterson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and vice chairman of the troop-supporting group Move America Forward, echoes Hegseth: “There is no doubt that President Bush should have sent a ‘call to arms’ to young Americans to step up and serve. . . . He should have appealed to the nation for a mobilized posture long ago. I would certainly hope that our next president will.”
Which brings me to John McCain. Scan the cast of characters running for president: Who is more serious when it comes to understanding the stakes of this war on terror? In fact, in some polls he’s seen a surge of support in the late summer — undeniably tied to news from Iraq. McCain’s service to our country in Vietnam is a story of character and heroism. I’ve heard him say, many a time, that military service many decades ago does not make anyone more qualified than another to make present-day foreign-policy decisions — which is true enough and an important thing for a former POW to say (that only a former POW can say). But it may put him in a better position to say, “Serve, your country needs you.”
My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recommended a few months ago that McCain pledge to serve one term only. It would be a standout move, a promise to do something important for four years — to lead on the war, and inspire Americans in a national cause — and not do anything for reelection. Ponnuru argued that for McCain such a move would be “the veteran’s last mission. The pledge would fit the persona.”
I disagree with John McCain on many issues. But we’re at war — and we need Americans to realize it — and feel like they’re a part of it. Veteran McCain could be the right person to lead, if only for four years.
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