The Veteran Card

In the frenetic battle for oxygen among the GOP’s bottom-feeding presidential candidates, Rick Perry deployed a weapon at his announcement yesterday that a lot of people might have missed. Take it away, Dave Weigel!

Back in April, when his presidential campaign was assured but not yet official, Rick Perry’s YouTube account published a video about “the story of Marcus Luttrell.” It was targeted to people who didn’t need to be told about Luttrell. The Navy SEAL’s story of battle in Afghanistan had been adapted into the book then film Lone Survivor. He’d rebuilt his life in Texas and started a Lone Survivor charity.

Conservatives knew that, but Perry had to tell them that he, too, knew Marcus Luttrell. The video was keyed off of a Luttrell speech that reporters were invited to cover — at the Ronald Reagan Library, no less — where they could hear the hero veteran talk about his friendship with Perry.

“Thanks for being my best friend and my father figure,” Luttrell said. “That’s why you’re the godfather to my kids, man….”

Today, when Perry launched his 2016 campaign for the White House, Luttrell stood right next to him in the punishing heat of an air hangar. And as Sean Davis recorded for The Federalist, a number of journalists had no idea who this guy was. Reporters for The Nation, The Huffington Post, and ThinkProgress wondered on Twitter about the identity of the guys with goatees and blue blazers creating a dour-looking diptych in the tight shot of Perry. (Answer: Luttrell and his brother.)

As you may know, this movie created a bit of culture-war Kabuki because its accuracy was a bit dubious and it suggested (as did, BTW, Saving Private Ryan) that following the rules of war could be suicidal. Thus emanates Davis’ smear of the godless military-hating socialist journalists who didn’t know Lutrell on sight (had the actor who played him in Lone Survivor, Mark Wahlberg, been standing there in costume and makeup, it might have been a different matter).

But the hyped-up controversy, like Luttrell’s association with Perry that created it, is designed to underline an aspect of Perry’s background that Weigel suggests his campaign didn’t take sufficient advantage of in 2012: his service as an Air Force officer. Indeed, he and Lindsey Graham are the only vets among the many GOP candidates for commander-in-chief:

In a campaign of aging boomers and rising Generation Xers, the military ties — and their heavy cultural associations — can matter. The 2012 election was the first since 1948 where the Republican Party did not nominate a veteran. (For all the trouble it caused him and Dan Rather, George W. Bush did serve in the Air Force Reserve.) In 2012, the only other Republican candidate with a military record was former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose campaign frequently cited his donations from the troops to debunk any charge that he was weak on foreign policy.

In a field of candidates frothing for new military adventures in the Middle East, Perry is semi-uniquely insulated against the Chickenhawk label. You could even make the argument that Perry, a C-130 pilot, is better qualified than the longer-serving and more outspokenly khaki-clad Graham, who was a JAG officer.

But if the field is to have anyone who has actually been in combat, Jim Webb will need to rev up his sorta presidential campaign. Until then, Perry and Graham get to play the vet card without competition.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.