As his achievements pile up, speculation grows that superstar Gen. David Petraeus will run for the White House. Our June cover story.
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Eisenhower started being pressed about a possible political career as early as 1943, in the thick of World War II. After the war concluded, speculation mushroomed. His diary entries and letters to close friends in the following years reflect his frustration that journalists and political figures simply could not accept that he really meant it when he said he had no desire to run for president.
“I cannot conceive of any set of circumstances that could ever drag out of me permission to consider me for any political post from Dog Catcher to ‘Grand High Supreme King of the Universe,’” he wrote to his boyhood friend, Everett “Swede” Hazlett, on March 13, 1946.
On August 25, 1947, he wrote to Hazlett, “It is difficult for many people — particularly those who have led a political life or are engaged in newspaper or radio work — to believe anyone who disclaims political ambition.”
In the run-up to the 1948 campaign, Eisenhower was recruited by both parties, and Leonard Finder, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, wanted to lead an effort to put Eisenhower on the ballot for the state’s primary. In response, Eisenhower — who at the time was Army chief of staff but would soon leave to become president of Columbia University — issued a statement, declaring, “I am not available for and could not accept nomination to high political office.” He insisted that the “decision to remove myself completely from the political scene is definite and positive.”
After issuing the statement, he expressed his sense of relief to Hazlett, explaining, “Now that it is done, I can at least devote my mind unreservedly to a number of other important things and will not feel like I am constantly on the ‘witness stand.’”
Eisenhower continued to disclaim any interest in the presidency, both publicly and in his private correspondences, over the next several years. But eventually, a confluence of factors led him to change his mind.
His writing reflected his increasing concern that the country was moving toward a “cradle to grave” welfare state, which allied him with Republicans. At the same time, he found the party to be dominated by extremists who were too nasty and negative. There was a fear among the party establishment that if the Republicans lost the 1952 election — having last won the presidency in 1928 — it would effectively end the two-party system.
In December 1950, Eisenhower agreed to become supreme commander of NATO. He arranged a meeting with the non-interventionist conservative U.S. senator Robert Taft, who was seen as a top contender for the 1952 Republican nomination. Eisenhower was ready to issue a statement definitively removing himself from politics if Taft agreed to support NATO, but he was unable to extract such a commitment. Over time, supporters convinced Eisenhower that he had a duty to run to serve the American people who were desperate for change. He was particularly moved when a midnight Eisenhower rally attracted 33,000 backers to Madison Square Garden (a prominent supporter flew to Paris to show him a film of the February 1952 event).
THE NATURE OF POLITICS has changed so much in the 60 years since Eisenhower ran that it would be difficult to replicate such a series of events. In Eisenhower’s time, the primaries were virtually meaningless, and delegates often chose the nominee in closed-door meetings. Eisenhower managed to win the New Hampshire primary without even campaigning, while based in Europe commanding NATO. He didn’t even return to America until June 1, 1952 — just five months before the general election. He managed to win the nomination at the convention, which turned into a battle between Northeastern establishment Republicans and the conservative Taft supporters.
It’s hard to see how Petraeus could make any similar transition ahead of the 2012 election, given how modern campaigns work. Right now, several prospective Republican candidates already have political action committees set up, as well as skeleton staffs. If the schedule is similar to the last presidential election cycle, it means that candidates will begin to form exploratory committees by the end of this year and spend 2011 touring the early primary states and debating one another. It’s hard to envision any scenario under which Petraeus would abandon his post during a critical stage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so that he could barnstorm around Iowa and New Hampshire making political speeches attacking the commander in chief. And if he did, it would undermine the very qualities that make him attractive as a potential candidate to begin with. On top of this, right now, Americans are more concerned with domestic issues like the economy and health care than they are with national security matters.
Thus, if Petraeus were ever to decide to run for president, it’s unlikely to happen before the 2016 election. Even then, there are a lot of important differences remaining between a potential Petraeus candidacy and Eisenhower’s run for president — and not just the fact that his name won’t lend itself to a jingle akin to “We like Ike.”
Most importantly, Eisenhower was much more widely known in America as commander of a popular war. Taking nothing away from Petraeus’s accomplishments in Iraq given the cards he was dealt, the reality is that most Americans think the war was a mistake and many don’t even know Petraeus. In addition, even if Americans view the war in Afghanistan — as well as the broader war on terrorism —as more necessary, it still won’t reach as satisfying a conclusion as World War II.
“This is not the kind of war where you take the hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade,” Petraeus said when discussing the campaign against al Qaeda, but he could have just as easily been discussing his political future.
If Petraeus entered a Republican primary battle, he’d no longer be treated with the deference typically paid to high-ranking military officers, and would be subject both to personal attacks and interrogations about his domestic policy views, which remain unknown. There was a time when Colin Powell was seen as a potential Republican candidate, but that speculation evaporated as some of his more liberal positions became known.
It’s also hard to know how Petraeus would perform as a campaigner, which requires a unique skill set that doesn’t always come naturally. In 2004, many Democrats thought they had a winner in Wesley Clark, the anti-Iraq war general, but his boomlet quickly fizzled due to his awkwardness as a candidate.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?