Fit to command

The U.S. should require that presidential candidates have military experience.

Published February 22, 2006 10:00AM (EST)

It's been four years since Richard Reid attempted to set fire to his explosive shoes on that Paris-Miami flight, and thanks to him we still do our little dance in stocking feet through airport security, a testimony to the power of the individual to gum up the works for millions of others. Eventually somebody will attempt to scoot through with an underwear bomb, and then we'll be arriving at the airport three hours before departure so we can be inspected by crotch-sniffing dogs.

An individual has vast power to do mischief, which is why our parents inoculated us against narcissism. "Spoiled" was a strong pejorative. When it was applied to us, it stung. And so you went through many little experiences that taught you not to think that the world revolves around you.

Small horrific experiences like taking a shower in gym class in seventh grade, when you shed your skivvies and stepped bare naked into a shower room with 30 other boys, moist pink flesh under a showerhead, soaping up, rinsing, getting the heck out and into your clothes. A democratic moment. There were many of them.

Of course the great experience that most of us missed out on is the American military, a baseline experience for my dad's generation, the kick in the pants that propels the dreamy adolescent into responsible adulthood. I don't apologize for dodging the draft in the Vietnam years -- there is a time and place for cowardice -- but there was a price to be paid for it: A dreaminess persisted that some sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood might have adjusted.

I met a West Point cadet once, and in her I could see what I'd missed out on, a keenness of focus, a great sense of poise. She embodied the word "capable." I would've followed her into a burning building. Had she skipped the Army and swanned around amongst the perpetual adolescents, she might have missed out on her life entirely.

Whenever I meet military men and women, I'm struck by their bearing and temperament. I sit down to dinner with a Marine captain just back from Iraq and immediately feel a little childish in his presence, though he's 30 years younger. He is friendly, polite and tremendously focused. What might appear at a distance to be rigidity is really heightened attentiveness. Everything he says is appropriate and precise. When you ask about his experience in Iraq, he tells you, without spinning the story. He is no tin soldier, no flag waver. There's no bombast in him. Like dancers, or pilots, or violinists, or lion tamers, he is a man trained to operate consistently at a high level of attention.

As you see the price to be paid for flabbiness and immaturity and narcissism and bad manners and lousy grammar, you appreciate the military more and you ponder the consequences of its isolation in American life. Fewer and fewer of our leaders have military service in their résumés. They prefer to sweep blithely along from one comfy perch to the next, cushioned in self-regard, promoting, puffing, spinning, hitting their talking points, building their skill sets. They slip into public office without ever having been yelled at by a bullet-headed black man with sergeant's stripes and made to stand up straight in 95-degree weather and march back and forth across a dusty field and not ask why. This is a shame.

The way to put military service back in the picture is to pass a constitutional amendment requiring that a candidate for president have at least two years of full-time military service. It would be a boon to the country, to the military and to the young. It would confirm the importance of service. The 42-year-old governor who discovers that he wants to be president would need to go down to the recruiting office and enlist. It'd be a big moment, like when Elvis went off to basic training. Think of Newt Gingrich climbing on a bus and going off to have his head shaved and his individuality taken away and rebuilt.

The Constitution requires the president to be at least 35 and a native-born American. The current president certainly casts doubt on the worth of that native-born requirement, but never mind -- amend the Constitution and let the boys and girls of Harvard and Stanford and Yale ponder their future. You will see the Army become more representative of the country, more middle-class and educated, and when it is, it will not likely be sent so casually off to war as the blue-collar Army has been.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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U.s. Military