You wouldn’t think it was possible for a soldier to shoot himself in the back while marching toward the front line, but Congressman Mark “Don’t Get Fooled Again” Kirk has managed to do it several times. By all accounts a capable intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, Mr. Kirk felt compelled to make himself out to be a bullet-dodging hero, and told a string of lies that exaggerated his military exploits. If they gave out Bronze Stars for courage in the face of the truth, Kirk would have a chestful.
Campaigns are the closest thing to warfare that most politicians ever face, of course, and in a campaign, as in real battles, the real man usually shows himself. Kirk’s wanting to be thought of as a video game hero betrays a want of maturity. His failure to realize that such lies are easily refuted in the Internet age, when even a misplaced comma in a master’s thesis can be exposed, betrays a want of judgment that is especially perplexing in an officer trained in information-gathering.
It has been widely assumed that political calculation had a part in Kirk’s foisting off his schoolboy fantasies as a curriculum vitae. There is something about a man in uniform – and, lately, a woman, as Tammy Duckworth reminded us – that makes the average voter snap to and salute. Apart from the remote risk of assassination, few jobs demand so little in physical courage as politics. Yet the ability to perform under fire is a trait in a politician prized by the voters above all others.
Even some real soldiers have been tempted to exploit their status as warriors. Joseph “Private Joe” Fifer, a Republican one-term governor from 1889 to 1893, made his wounding a centerpiece of his campaign. Otto Kerner’s uniform never stayed in the closet long enough to get moth-eaten, thanks to an image campaign concocted by advisor Norton Long. William Stratton even volunteered for the Navy near the end of World War II in order to be able to campaign as a veteran after the war, hints historian Robert Howard.
Electing a man who can dodge bullets is, I suppose, a credential for dodging all the other things that an elected official must dodge, such as hard questions and inconvenient fiscal truths, not to mention subpoena servers. Beyond that skill, however, a military background would seem to render a person less qualified as an elected public servant rather than more. “Do or die” is the antithesis of the politician’s instinct to survive to get elected another day. Dan Walker — a U.S. Naval Academy grad — was only one who learned that giving no quarter might work on the battlefield, but that compromise is the best weapon of the politician. As for selfless service in the larger good — of Illinois’ six governors who were veterans of World War II or Korea, three were convicted of crimes associated with dubious financial dealings and a fourth was tried but acquitted of charges of tax evasion.
Nor is there much evidence that medals on one’s chest makes one a more competent public servant. Not only did John A. Logan look good on a horse and give rousing speeches, he was an unusually able soldier. He entered the Union army as Colonel of the 31st Illinois Volunteers. Serving under Grant, he was wounded at Fort Donelson, after which he was promoted to brigadier general. And on he went — commanding first a division, then an army corps, then the Army of the Tennessee itself, retiring at war’s end as a major general. If war experience were the making of a political leader, one would have expected Logan to be another Solon, but after four years in the U.S. House and more than twelve in the Senate, his only accomplishment was to help make Memorial Day a federal holiday.
Contrast Logan’s post-military political achievements to those of Frank O. Lowden. In 1899, the officers of Chicago’s First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard elected Lowden their lieutenant colonel. That unit loved to dress up in uniform but never fought, except perhaps over the drinks bill at their club. Lowden accepted, pledging theatrically to “share my hardtack with the needy.” “Eating hardtack did not figure importantly in his four years of service,” noted biographer William Hutchinson wryly, “but he studied the army manuals, attended the evening drill periods faithfully, and endured the heat of the annual summer encampment and maneuvers at Camp Lincoln near Springfield.” Yet as governor from 1917 until 1921, “Colonel” Lowden, as he was often called, compiled a record that historians judge to be among the two or three most distinguished in the state’s history.
The fact is that most real soldiers fit uncomfortably inside the suit of a politician. The principal virtue in a foot soldier is unthinking obedience to even ill-considered policies of his or her commander. As recent sessions of the Illinois General Assembly have reminded us, what is heroism in a soldier is often cowardice in an elected public servant.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at email@example.com.