When Stormin Norman said ‘no,’ he meant it
For this reporter, the breaking news that retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf died at age 78 brought back a memory about the colorful general with the explosive temper: how, upon returning home as the heroic commander of triumphant coalition forces in Operation Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf was immediately boomed for political office.
And like so much else in his many years in uniform, “Stormin’ Norman” said “no”—and he meant it.
Like Dwight Eisenhower after World War II, Schwarzkopf was boomed for office in both major parties.
“We want to run Schwarzkopf against (Democratic Sen. Bob) Graham in Florida next year,” Florida House Republican Leader Jim Lombard told me in 1991, as Schwarzkopf was settling down in Tampa for his final command as commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters responsible for U.S. military and security concerns in nearly 20 countries from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa to Pakistan, “and then after that, who knows?”
The late columnist William Safire saw Schwarzkopf going for the top job without need of a lower office. In a 1991 column in the New York Times envisioning the world in five years, Safire saw Vice President Dan Quayle seeking the Republican nomination and “Norm Schwarzkopf” running for president as a Democrat. Safire also saw a lot of other things in 1991 that didn’t happen in 1996, such as British politician and now-BBC chairman Chris Patten becoming prime minister on a platform to the right of Margaret Thatcher.
But Schwarzkopf had no interest in politics and, upon retiring from the military, he simply, retired. After a brief stint as a television news analyst, he settled down in Tampa, Florida (where he lived until his death), served on the board of Remington, and became involved in various charities. Office-seekers easily sought his endorsement but to no avail. It wasn’t until 2004 that he made his first public endorsement of a candidate when he came out for President George W. Bush in his winning re-election bid against Democrat John Kerry.
But, by the end of 2004, Schwarzkopf had grown disillusioned with the Bush policies in Iraq and with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In 2008, the retired general strongly endorsed John McCain for President over Barack Obama.
Before retiring from the military, Schwarzkopf declined the position of Army chief of staff. Many who admired the bluntness of the general they called “Stormin’ Norman” and “the Bear” privately breathed a sigh of relief. The same style that had earned him combat decorations in Vietnam and a victory in Desert Storm might not have served the general so well in the backroom wheelings and dealings on Capitol Hill, which a service commandant must master.
Norman Schwarzkopf knew best that his own style might not have had staying power in the political hustings. As one wag put it amid all the “Run, Norm, Run” talk of 20 years ago: “Can you picture one of these blow-dried, smooth talking consultants telling him what to do?”