I’ve been lying low this political season, watching from a safe distance. But, after hearing the office of president referred to time and again as our “commander in chief,” I finally had to speak out. Here is my piece published on July 27 in my local newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard.
U.S. civilians don’t have a commander in chief
By Steve McQuiddy
For The Register-Guard
July 27, 2016
Donald Trump will not be my commander in chief. Neither will Hillary Clinton.
Our nation does not have a commander in chief. It never has; hopefully it never will. Our nation does have a commander in chief of the armed forces. This person, as outlined in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of our Constitution, is the president of the United States.
The president does not “command” any civilians, except as an employer who oversees the work of people in his or her administration.
This may seem like hair-splitting to some. But I submit that it is one of the most important distinctions in our president’s job description — so important that it delineates the difference between democracy and dictatorship.
The use of “commander in chief” as a synonym for “president” or “chief executive” has permeated our national discourse so completely in the last 15 years that it now appears regularly in otherwise competently presented news stories.
A simple Internet search for “commander in chief” reveals its regular use as shorthand when referring to the president.
The Dallas Morning News reported that at the Democratic National Convention, “two Democratic presidents will eagerly serve as cheerleaders: Hillary Clinton’s husband, the 42nd president, and the current commander in chief, Obama.”
The Hill, which covers Washington, D.C., politics, quoted Darryl Glenn, a candidate for Senate in Colorado, at the Republican National Convention, “This president ran to be commander in chief. Unfortunately, his rhetoric has made him divider in chief.”
Even our local newspaper recently ran a story from the Tribune News Service that spoke of American voters having difficulty visualizing Donald Trump as “the nation’s commander in chief.”
To be fair, most news organizations generally use the term in context of military-related topics. But overuse blurs the distinction between the president’s role as commander of the military, and his or her political job of carrying out the will of the people.
One recent president recognized that during times of war, the public looks to the president as an authority figure. “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief,” George W. Bush reportedly told his ghostwriter, Mickey Herskowitz, in 1999.
“My father [George H. W. Bush] had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and he wasted it,” Herskowitz recalled the then-governor of Texas saying. “If I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it.”
Bush put those words into action after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, sending American forces to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Chief among the events cementing his identity as a military leader was his flight in a military jet to a landing on an aircraft carrier off the California coastline, where he stepped out wearing a flight suit and carrying a helmet under his arm.
And who can forget then-CBS News anchorman Dan Rather on Late Night with David Letterman, a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. “George Bush is the president,” Rather said, “wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”
By 2004, the melding of chief executive and commander in chief was complete, both in word and picture. “I’m a war president,” Bush told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that year. “The American people need to know they got a president who sees the world the way it is.”
The candidates in ensuing elections didn’t do much to disabuse us of this notion.
John Kerry in 2004 based his campaign on his military experience in Vietnam. Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted “3 a.m. phone call” campaign advertisement in 2008 further supported the idea that a president’s primary job is military.
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” wrote George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language,” his 1946 essay. “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, Orwell argued. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
This is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it is a concern for all Americans.
Language is power. If we allow others to dictate the meanings of our words, we allow others to dictate the meanings of our lives.
So, the next time someone asks if you can imagine Candidate X or Candidate Y as your commander in chief, answer them with, “No, I live in a democracy. We don’t have a commander in chief.”
Steve McQuiddy, a writing instructor at Lane Community College, is the author of “Here on the Edge,” a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist, the story of a group of World War II conscientious objectors on the Oregon Coast.