Senator Barack Obama's campaign is considering picking a military man as a running mate to compensate for Obama's limited national-security experience. But it's far from clear that military experience raises the prospects for a successful presidency. While Dwight D. Eisenhower won pretty good White House grades following his 43-year Army career, Jimmy Carter (seven years in the Navy) didn't do so well. Old soldiers still grimace when recalling the military highlight of that presidency: 1980's failed mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The Desert One fiasco killed eight U.S. service members, doomed Carter to lose to Ronald Reagan later that year and primed the pump for Reagan's military buildup.
The glad-handing and stroking that come naturally to politicians are not the norm for more buttoned-down military officers. They've spent years smartly saluting and being saluted, issuing and carrying out orders. That's probably not the best prep for a role in which persuasion and cajolery are vital. But none of that dims the luster a former general or admiral can bring to a ticket. Officers tend to be mediagenic: slender, ramrod straight and well spoken, especially on foreign policy matters. (Well, there was the exception of the late James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, a retired Navy vice admiral who famously opened that year's vice-presidential debate by saying, "Who am I? Why am I here?")
Robert Scales, a retired Army major general, suggests that having a military officer on the ticket is a mixed blessing. "The great strength of a military guy would be credibility on national security," says Scales, a military historian and former commandant of the Army War College. "The great weakness is that he lacks any type of regional attraction, which, to my mind, is really the primary purpose in picking a running mate." Indeed, military officers often move every three or four years, essentially making them political transients.
Still, the Obama camp is considering the option. Here's a quick guide to the ex-service members in the frame to join the Illinois Senator on the ticket:
Wesley Clark was the NATO Supreme Commander who led the U.S. war against Serbia in Kosovo in 1999 and failed in his own bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. He was seen as "Bill Clinton's general," hailing, like Clinton, from Arkansas he backed Hillary Clinton earlier this year in her bid for the nomination. Many military officers viewed Clark as a political general, which is peculiar: all generals are political; some just hide it better than others.
James Jones is a retired four-star Marine general who served as NATO's top commander from 2003 to 2006 after a stint as the Marine Corps' commandant. He gets bipartisan praise from those he has worked with in the military and civilian worlds. Curiously enough, he served as one of the corps's Capitol Hill lobbyists (yes, the military services have them too) at the same time Captain John McCain was pulling the same duty for the Navy. The two remain, by some accounts, good pals.
Merrill (Tony) McPeak served as Air Force chief of staff during the first Gulf War. An F-15 fighter pilot, the lanky McPeak can be outspoken ("I can't keep my mouth shut," he told TIME earlier this week when asked about his support for Obama). He was a controversial chief of staff, ordering a new uniform that was derided for making Air Force personnel look like Delta pilots which was promptly dropped when he retired in 1994.
Hugh Shelton, the retired Army general who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 until just after 9/11, has long been seen as a Clinton loyalist. But his soft-spoken nature and paratrooper bona fides might make him a good fit with Obama. He was severely injured shortly after his retirement when he fell from a ladder while working in his yard (something he didn't have to do as a general), but friends say he has recovered well.
Jim Webb served four years as a Marine officer, some of that time in Vietnam, following his education at the U.S. Naval Academy. He left the service in 1972 and later served as Ronald Reagan's Navy Secretary before being elected in 2006 as a Democratic Senator from Virginia. Webb, a prolific writer and author, is haunted by a 1979 article he wrote for Washingtonian magazine titled "Women Can't Fight." He has since disowned that position, but it's a safe bet Hillary Clinton loyalists whom the Obama campaign needs to woo into its camp won't let him hit the "Delete" key.