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The politics of presidential visits to Arlington
For the first time since 1944, neither major-party presidential candidate has served in the military. But that's not stopping them from pushing for the veteran vote
 
Paul Brandus
Paul Brandus

Some Americans have gotten so cynical that even a Memorial Day trip to Arlington National Cemetery by the president of the United States is the object of derision and distrust. Take Monday's appearance there by President Obama.

"What upsets me about this is he will use it as a campaign speech as Obama always does!" scoffed one Twitter user. "Yuck!!"

Of course, if Obama hadn't gone to Arlington at all — if he had, say, gone to Camp David instead — that would have elicited howls of protest that the president was disrespecting the military. Sometimes presidents just can't win.

And at least Obama went. Most 20th century presidents, if you can believe it, didn't ever go to Arlington on Memorial Day — the one day that above all is most appropriate for an appearance by the commander-in-chief. According to a variety of presidential libraries, university databases, and the National Archives, the total number of Memorial Day visits by Presidents (Franklin) Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon was… zero. In fact, after Herbert Hoover's 1929 visit to Arlington, it wasn't until 1975 that Gerald Ford's swung by and broke the dry spell. Ford went again in 1976. And after that? Carter never went on Memorial Day, Reagan went three times in eight years, and Bush (George H.W.) never went. Not that these presidents, veterans all, ignored Memorial Day. Most issued proclamations or made radio addresses to honor the occasion.

Although the military consistently ranks at or near the top of professions most respected by Americans, voters don't necessarily prefer candidates with military backgrounds.

The habit of presidents going to Arlington on a regular basis didn't really begin until 1993, when Bill Clinton, smarting from questions about his lack of military service, went — and continued going for the next seven Memorial Days as well.  George W. Bush, who did serve, but not without controversy, was also a regular, going seven of his eight years in office (the one year he missed Arlington he spoke at a cemetery in Normandy, where Americans killed during the D-Day invasion are buried). As for Obama? Three visits to Arlington, and one to another military cemetery in Illinois.

Perhaps there's a pattern here: The military heroism and leadership of some presidents – Eisenhower, JFK, and Bush I, for example — could never be questioned, while for others — Clinton and Obama — it didn't exist in the first place, and thus influenced their decision to go. By this standard, a President Mitt Romney would likely go to Arlington next Memorial Day, given his lack of military service. Or perhaps they go because it is simply the right thing for a commander-in-chief to do. 

The search for votes also plays a role in outreach to veterans, of course. Romney has an astonishing 24-point lead among vets, according to a recent Gallup poll. That 58 percent to 34 percent gap is one reason Obama trails in the overall men's vote, though he more than makes up for it with his lead among women. Among non-veterans, Obama leads Romney by four points.

Romney's huge lead among veterans is a problem for the Obama campaign in another way: There are tons of vets in key swing states. Veterans account for 1.6 million people in Florida, and 800,000 in both Virginia and North Carolina, according to the Veterans Administration. These states, with 57 electoral votes among them, could be decided by just a few votes either way, which helps explain all the attention veterans are getting from both candidates.

For his part, Obama, who has increased the Veterans Administration budget and focused on jobs and housing for vets during his three-and-a-half years in office, went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Monday to criticize the way many vets were treated when they returned home. "It was a national shame," the president said, "a disgrace that should have never happened. And that's why here today, we resolve that it will not happen again." Three thousand miles away in San Diego, Romney released a video thanking veterans for their service. "We rightly call our fathers and mothers the greatest generation," he said. "But every woman and every man who has or now defends American liberty share in their heritage of greatness. Every veteran is the greatest of his generation."

Meantime, although the military consistently ranks at or near the top of professions most respected by Americans, it doesn't mean they prefer candidates with military backgrounds. In 1992, George H.W. Bush — who flew 58 combat missions in World War II and whose plane was shot down over the Pacific — was beaten by Bill Clinton. Clinton then trounced another World War II hero, Bob Dole, four years later. In 2000, Vietnam veteran Al Gore was beaten (in the Supreme Court at least) by George W. Bush, and four years later, Bush "swift-boated" John Kerry, a Purple Heart-winning Vietnam vet. In 2008, John McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was beaten by a guy whose formative years were spent as a community organizer in Chicago.

Not that this dynamic exists in 2012. This year's Obama-Romney matchup is the first time since 1944 that neither major-party presidential candidate ever served in the military. And given that only 1 percent of Americans wear the uniform today, it won't be the last.

 

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