When the aunt of a military medic serving in Baghdad asked the president whether he had done anything to encourage Americans to volunteer for service, he replied, "No," shortly after having talked at length about the role of the commander in chief. Then he quickly revised his answer: "Well, I guess I have.
I supported the advertising budgets of the Army and the Marines. But I have urged people to serve the nation in a variety of ways; urged people to feed the hungry or house the homeless. I thanked people for going to help rebuild homes in New Orleans, praised the Peace Corps."
If a group can collectively cringe, the group around the table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House certainly did. As important as feeding the hungry is, it's not the same as risking your life for your warring country.
I don't think the president meant to equate these things, and I am certain he did not intend to demean military service. He probably hadn't expected the question and might have felt awkward answering it, and the fact that he did not serve in Vietnam has been an issue for him. (It shouldn't be: He did serve in the National Guard.) This may have led him to believe that he couldn't ask men and women to give up their lives as volunteers. But as commander in chief during this war on radical Islam -- a role he takes dead seriously -- his office requires he make that request.
A little later, the president remarked to those in the Roosevelt Room: "I haven't specifically said, 'I want you to go in the military.' There are plenty of inducements for young men and women to make that decision. I've been generally -- I've been kind of on a -- I haven't been specific about how I asked people to serve. I've just asked them to serve."
Pete Hegseth, the articulate head of Veterans for Freedom -- folks who know true wartime sacrifice -- shares my opinion. "I don't understand why he wouldn't call on Americans to serve their country, in uniform, in this extremely important war. President Bush understands the stakes of the fight in Iraq and should call on the best and brightest to serve on the battlefield. That message, to me, seems like a no-brainer."
Buzz Patterson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and vice chairman of the troop-supporting group Move America Forward, echoes Hegseth: "There is no doubt that President Bush should have sent a 'call to arms' to young Americans to step up and serve. ... He should have appealed to the nation for a mobilized posture long ago. I would certainly hope that our next president will."
The president's response to the question of military service does make an American wonder: Would a vet president help? Could it change an American dynamic? Would it make it easier for a wartime president to inspire military service?
And here you can't help but think of John McCain. Scan the cast of characters running for president. Who is more serious when it comes to understanding the stakes of this war on terror? In fact, in some polls he saw a surge of support in the late summer -- undeniably tied to news from Iraq.
McCain's service to our country is a story of character and heroism. I've heard him say many times that military service many decades ago does not make anyone more qualified than another to make present-day foreign-policy decisions. But it certainly puts him in a better position to say: "Serve. Your country needs you."
I disagree with McCain on many issues, but we're at war, and we need Americans to realize it and feel like they're part of it. Veteran McCain could be the right person to lead.