During newspaper deliveries on Thursday, Bill O'Reilly was pontificating about which presidential candidate would be the best commander in chief. O'Reilly leaned heavily toward McCain because of his military experience.
I think it is possible that McCain might be the best commander in chief, but I'm not certain of it, and if he would be, I don't think experience would have much to do with it. Military experience in presidential candidates can easily be overrated. No matter how much civilians may try to keep up, they can't really have the range of knowledge and experience that we expect from top generals. So even the most experienced presidents have to lean heavily on generals for military advice, and the knowledge that presidents have might tempt them to leap to wrong conclusions.
Consider that the two greatest wartime presidents this country has had were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lincoln's military experience was so slight that even he joked about it; Roosevelt held a civilian post as assistant secretary of the Navy. He was an able administrator, apparently, but never wore the uniform.
So what made these two presidents successful as war presidents? Three things, it seems to me: They defined the mission, both for the military and the public; they kept their eye on the ball; and they had good generals.
How do the current candidates stack up? Barack Obama, it seems to me, wins big on the first point. Can you imagine either of the other two candidates giving one the great Lincoln or Roosevelt wartime speeches? Me neither.
On point two, Obama also seems to have the edge, based on his opposition to the Iraq War. It isn't just that he opposed the war; that was easy enough. But his 2002 speech laid out the case against the war in blunt and eloquent terms: The war was dumb, unnecessary and outside our real interests.
Point three? A tougher call. Lincoln went through quite a few generals before he found the right one. Roosevelt had an easier time of it; Eisenhower was perfectly suited for the kind of war World War II was.
My guess is that Clinton might be best at weeding through generals because she is tough and ruthless. McCain's military experience might give him an edge in cutting through the bull to see what's really going on, but it might also make it harder for him to make the right call. So I'm not sure. It's an open question.