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History shows generals do well in presidential stakes

But Clark must overcome a half-century gap

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark has vaulted to the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates after tossing his helmet into the ring, and he didn't hurt his prospects by what most analysts thought was a solid performance in his first debate with his rivals last week.

But Clark has some history to overcome if he hopes to get into the White House without a visitor's pass. It's been a half century since a former general was elected president, although it was once quite common.

Of America's 43 presidents, 12 (28 percent) have been generals. Among the professions, only lawyers have more representation. Four other generals have been major party nominees, but lost in the "general" election.

Still other generals -- including Sam Houston -- have been minor party nominees or contended unsuccessfully for their party's nomination.

Gen. George A. Custer's recklessness at the Little Big Horn was driven in part by his ambition to parley a victory over the Sioux into the Democratic nomination for president in 1876.

But of the 12 generals who became president, only two -- Andrew Jackson in 1828 and Franklin Pierce in 1852 -- were elected as Democrats, and they were elected before the Republican party was formed.

The last Democratic former general to be president was Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who was Abraham Lincoln's running mate in 1864, and became president after Lincoln's assassination.

The last former general to be nominated for president by the Democrats was Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880. He lost narrowly to another former general, Republican James A. Garfield.

Two of the other three generals to lose presidential elections were Democrats, Lewis Cass in 1848 and George McClellan in 1864. The third was Winfield Scott, the Whig Party nominee in 1852.

Five former generals -- Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and Dwight D. Eisenhower -- were elected president as Republicans.

Chester A. Arthur, who briefly was quartermaster general of the New York militia during the Civil War, became president when Garfield was assassinated in 1881.

The other former generals to become president were George Washington, who belonged to no party, and William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, who were elected as Whigs.

On three occasions, the presidential contest was between two former generals: Taylor and Cass in 1848; Pierce and Scott in 1852, and Garfield and Hancock in 1880.

Of the generals who became president or won major party nominations, only Washington, Jackson, William H. Harrison, Taylor, Scott, Grant, Hancock and Eisenhower were professional soldiers.

For the others, military service was a relatively brief period in lives devoted to holding elective or appointive office.

The record of generals as president is mixed.

Washington is regarded as our greatest president by historians who do not give that accolade to Lincoln. Jackson and Eisenhower are regarded by many as "near great" presidents. Grant's presidency is panned by most historians, but some think he deserves "near great" status, too.

William Henry Harrison, Taylor and Garfield died so soon after their inaugurations that their presidencies can't be considered good or bad.

Andrew Johnson was the only president besides Bill Clinton to be impeached.

The presidencies of Pierce, Hayes, Arthur and Benjamin Harrison passed with neither notable success nor egregious failure.

Admirals have never piqued public imagination as generals have. No former admiral has ever been nominated for president, or been a serious contender, although there was a brief flurry of interest by Democrats in Commodore George Dewey after his victory at Manila Bay in the Spanish-American war.

In modern times, the electorate has shown little interest in generals.

Leonard Wood was a leading contender for the Republican nomination in 1920, ultimately won by Warren G. Harding. Alexander M.Haig -- for whom Clark once wrote speeches -- contemplated a presidential run in 1980, but his prospective candidacy excited little interest.

There was an effort by some Republicans to draft Colin Powell in 1996, but Powell had no interest.

Of the 43 presidents, all but 16 served in the military.

Jack Kelly can be reached at or 412-263-1476.

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