When Johnny comes marching home again, he sometimes runs for Congress. Jeannie, too.
Since George Washington became president, war veterans have had a disproportionate role in American life, culture and politics. A dozen generals have become president, and several times — in 1848, when Lewis Cass ran against Zachary Taylor; in 1852, when Franklin Pierce ran against Winfield Scott; and in 1880, when James Garfield ran against Winfield Scott Hancock — two generals opposed each other for the presidency.
Every president from 1933 to 1991, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946, was involved in World War II. For a long period a majority of senators were World War II veterans. Korean War veterans such as Charles Rangel of New York and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, along with Vietnam War veterans such as Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona, have played major roles on and off Capitol Hill.
Now, with World War II, Korea and Vietnam retreating into the past, a new era of political veterans is dawning, and a group of activists is mobilizing to recruit Iraq and Afghan veterans, along with veterans of national-service programs like the Peace Corps, to run for office at a time when trust in government is at alarming lows.
“The lack of leadership is not about the lack of leaders,” said Emily Cherniack, founder and executive director of New Politics. “We have leaders. They’re just not running for office, because they’re not part of the political ecosystem.”
One of them who did run is Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents this northeastern colonial corner of Massachusetts in the House with an unusually attractive profile: four tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer (including two as a special assistant to Gen. David Petraeus), followed by civilian tours at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.
“I think about three of the roles the Marines talk about — honor, courage, commitment — and I know that we need all three in politics, especially the element about making a commitment to your country over your own interests or your party’s interests,” said Mr. Moulton, a Democrat elected in 2014. He said serving in Congress was “the first job I’ve had since the Marines when I truly feel that I am working not for my paycheck but to serve the people.”
That echoes the perspective of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led American forces in Afghanistan and who said in an interview that the New Politics effort could help “infuse” American political life with the sense of sacrifice and selflessness that is implicit in military service. He has given strong support to the group.
“This is a great idea,” former Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, said in a telephone conversation the other day. “These people are respected. They did what they were asked to do and made a sacrifice for their country. In our case we weren’t Democrats and Republicans, we were veterans — and friends.”