In his speech yesterday to the National Guard Association of the United States President Bush said that he was proud to be one of 19 presidents to have served in the Guard. This struck one of my readers as a tad fishy. And when he dropped me a line about it, my reaction was the same.
There have, after all, been 43 presidents of the United States. So almost half, according to the president are Guard veterans. Who knew?
Actually, it's even more striking because President Bush is one of only two presidents who served in the Guard during the 20th century. (Harry Truman served in the Missouri National Guard from 1905-1911 and then again in World War I.)
So what's the deal? Why were the 19th and 18th centuries so rich in Guard-serving presidents?
Basically the president was using what amounts to a historical trick.
He's including the individual state militias, which before the 20th century fought most of America's wars, as the National Guard.
So, for instance, Thomas Jefferson, who briefly commanded a regiment in the Virginia militia. He was in the National Guard.
Almost all the presidents from the latter part of the 19th century who fought in the Civil War? National Guard vets.
By this definition pretty much everyone -- with the exception of some career officers -- who served under arms for the US from the Revolution through the end of the 19th century would count as a Guard veteran.
The president didn't come up with the number 19 out of whole cloth. The National Guard Association of the United States for instance speaks of the 19 presidents "who served in the Guard or its forerunner, the organized militia." President left off that little detail.
Ironically, the manning of the Iraq War represents a move back toward this older model -- with extensive use of state Guard units to bulk up the core of the national, full-time military.