Law School Is Obamaland's Boot Camp

Posted: Oct 12, 2010 12:01 AM
Law School Is Obamaland's Boot Camp

Even though America is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, members of President Obama's Cabinet are three times more likely to have attended law school than boot camp.

Only two -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki -- among the 16 Cabinet and six Cabinet-rank officials are military veterans. With last week's departure of National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, a former Marine, the ranks of vets in Obama's national security inner circle just got thinner. Replacement Tom Donilon is another lawyer (and former lobbyist) with no military training.

The Democratic Party has come a long way since 2004 when party biggies were hitting President George W. Bush for serving only in the Air National Guard during Vietnam. Remember? Sen. John Kerry saluted the Democratic National Convention in Boston as he announced he was "reporting for duty." Democrats chastised Vice President Dick Cheney -- who enjoyed five draft deferments during that war -- as a "chicken hawk."

Now it's 2010. America is at war -- two wars. The commander in chief has never served in the military. Vice President Joe Biden received five student draft deferments during Vietnam. And you don't hear the term "chicken hawk" anymore.

I should note here that I never served in the military. I don't think that military service is an indispensable criterion for high office; it's a plus for a politician, just as deferments are a negative. All things being equal, it is preferable to have a president who personally understands what war means than not. Then again, all things never are equal.

Last year, as I recalled all the Democrats' demands for military service among the top Bushies -- because U.S. troops were fighting two wars -- I decided to check out the Obama Cabinet. I found only two military veterans, compared to six in the first (and by the way, prewar) Bush Cabinet.

At the time, the White House sent me a list of other prominent vets in the administration -- Jones, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Matthew Flavin at the Department of Defense, Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth and foreign policy adviser Mark Lippert.

So when Jones stepped down last week, I thought I'd recalibrate. Flavin and Duckworth remain on the job. Lippert returned to active service in the Navy. His replacement, Denis R. McDonough, has no military experience. Blair's out; the new director of national intelligence, James Clapper, is a vet.

Monday, the White House sent four new names -- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary W. Scott Gould.

When Obama picked Donilon to succeed Jones, many pundits turned to Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." In it, Defense Secretary Gates is quoted as saying that Donilon would be a "disaster" as national security adviser.

On Friday, Gates walked back from that comment, as an unnamed senior defense official leaked that the two "enjoy a very good working relationship, and really have for quite some time now."

The more interesting quotes, however, come from Jones himself. As Woodward reports, Jones sat Donilon down one day and praised his organizational and political skills. Jones also said something you wouldn't expect a national security adviser to say to a deputy. Jones hit Donilon for never having gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, and not even leaving the office for a serious field trip. "You have no credibility with the military," Jones told Donilon.

That's not good.

Maybe generational differences explain the gap between the Bush and Obama teams.

Or maybe this is a class issue. Maybe Obama surrounds himself with like-minded alumni of faculty lounges and law review journals -- seven Cabinet members and one Cabinet-rank official are law school grads -- when he ought to be looking harder among America's heroes and old warhorses for advice. Maybe, since America is at war, Obama should look a little harder outside his rarefied comfort zone.

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