David Eisenhower once told me that the presidential success of his grandfather Dwight Eisenhower started in World War II, when he honed his political skills by getting competing allied leaders to agree to and execute a military strategy. I remember being surprised by that, as I'd thought of Eisenhower's White House tenure as a departure from his military success. Different game, different field. But it really wasn't.
Which is perhaps why so many people look at a general like David Petraeus and think, "Aha, here's our next Ike." Although he denies interest, Petraeus 2012 boomlets surface from time to time.
Understandably, too. As the architect of the successful U.S. surge in Iraq, Petraeus not only had to think innovatively, he had to muster the skills to persuade Iraq and Washington to follow his counter-insurgency path.
His skills as a communicator and innovator were on display when the four-star general, now responsible for military strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East, stopped by to visit the Dallas Morning News editorial board.
Trim and approachable, the 57-year-old Princeton doctorate showed the skills that most top generals must have today: soldier, diplomat, communicator, strategist, statistician and community relations maestro wrapped into one.
The image of blood-and-guts generals no longer holds true.
Our best military leaders transcend that caricature. Today's asymmetrical battlegrounds require leaders who go beyond traditional warfare.
Some have been in Dallas lately, such as Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, the No. 2 commander in Iraq who appeared recently at SMU's John Tower Center. He, too, sounded as much nation-builder as warrior.
After hearing from Petraeus and several others over the last few months, my initial thought is to jump on the bandwagon and hope that they turn into our next crop of political leaders. Generals like George Washington and Andrew Jackson once led the nation, but other than Ike, we don't do that anymore.
Americans certainly could benefit from their skills, which cross many dimensions. Petraeus, in particular, has had as big a footprint on recent world events as any political actor.
But there are barriers to them leapfrogging into another kind of leadership, the one that requires attracting votes to end up in high office, like president.
Things were different in Ike's day, starting with the 24-hour news cycle. We can love the constant media coverage or lament it, but it's not going away.
Today's candidates get picked apart in a way Eisenhower never did. Petraeus deals well with the media, but even he would get scrutinized in a way he hasn't as a military leader. Ask Colin Powell and Wes Clark, two generals who never made the leap into elected office.
Generals come from a different culture. As innovative and forward thinking as Petraeus is, he's lived in a rootless world where authority is imposed from on high. Whatever else politics is, it is not command-and-control. It is a messy place, as Barack Obama is learning.
How would these generals handle that? Politicians, at least the good ones, know how to listen.
Generals command and don't necessarily have to pay attention to many other people.
To Petraeus' credit, he held plenty of hands in Washington and Baghdad to turn Iraq around. But how well would he do in the coffee shops of Iowa and New Hampshire, the barrios of Texas and California or the subway stops of Manhattan and Chicago?
Until we find out, I hope the politically inclined of this new crop think about these questions.
We could use their wide-ranging skills to resolve some of our national problems, just as Eisenhower applied his military background to building a national highway system. But we won't get a shot at their talents if they don't acquire that other skill, that of good politician.
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS