COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s antebellum system of selecting our military leadership worked well for Bob Livingston. He rose steadily through the ranks to major general, led an 1,800-strong combat brigade in a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan in 2007, held key leadership posts with Central Command and at the Pentagon, and when he decided in 2010 that he wanted to be adjutant general, well, he became adjutant general. Without a fight.
I’m told there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work, that then-Adjutant General Stan Spears had planned to run again, and that may be true, but the fact is that when Livingston filed for the only publicly elected military post in the free world, no one filed to run against him. Not another Republican. Not a Democrat. No one. So the job is his, and likely will be for as long as he wants it.
Not exactly the type of person you’d vote “Most Likely to Dismantle the South Carolina’s Military Anachronism.” Which, when you think about it, is one of the reasons he was elected. And yet, he is well on his way to doing just that. On Wednesday, the House approved legislation to ask voters in a constitutional referendum to let future governors appoint the adjutant general from among colonels and generals with at least 10 years experience in the Guard, among other criteria.
Livingston, who spends a day a week selling the idea to legislators and the public, told me last week that the nation’s increasing reliance on the National Guard has made it imperative that the adjutant general is up to the job – which you simply can’t ensure through a public election.
“We’ve had great adjutants in the past,” he said. “But the level of play for the National Guard nationally has just elevated to such a level that we cannot afford to make a mistake, and we cannot afford to have politics within the Guard, and that’s just something that the current system does allow to happen. Even if it’s remote, it does allow it to happen. So it’s how the National Guard has evolved and occupied that centerpiece in our nation’s defense over the last twelve years that’s really driving this whole issue.”
Livingston says the election system impairs the Guard’s “credibility at the national level,” because while the leaders of the Army and Air Force have confidence in him, “what they don’t have confidence in is our selection process.” He also worries that having an adjutant general chosen in partisan elections could “create barriers” to serving the governor, as a state military leader is supposed to do.
And there’s simply no getting around the fact that electing the adjutant general injects the sort of politics into the military that our nation has so thoroughly, and wisely, rejected.
“Anytime you ask somebody for their vote or their money, (it) is implied that somebody’s going to get something out of it, and there needs to be no implication,” he said. “As I tell my troops, there’s two things we consider for promotion: what you have done and what you are capable of doing in the future.”
Retired members of the Guard remain divided over the change, Livingston said. But younger troops appreciate the idea that an adjutant general should be appointed, based on clear criteria, rather than elected, because they’re accustomed to promotions and troop assignments being made by committee, based on merit, rather than the old system where commanders could intervene as they saw fit.
The adjutant general did not come into office determined to change the selection method. He did, however, come into office aware that change needed to be considered, as the demands on the Guard increased and questions about the politics proliferated.
So one of the first things he did was to appoint a study committee – which included Spears, a take-no-prisoners defender of the election system.
The committee split 50-50 on whether to change to an appointive system, but it was unanimous in believing qualifications for the job need to be written into law.
“I spent about two years studying the recommendations, looking at the good and bad things in the organization, and tracking down what caused that good or bad thing,” he said. “And that’s when I came to the conclusion – and this is kind of a senior leadership conclusion within our organization, because we all looked at it – that it would make sense to appoint the leader with qualifications” written into the law.
There’s no guarantee that the legislation will pass. It needs a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, and lawmakers have rejected previous entreaties from constitutional officers to make their positions appointive. Rep. James Smith, a major in the Army National Guard who led combat troops in Afghanistan and came around to supporting appointment when he served on Livingston’s study committee, told me last week that he wasn’t sure the votes were there.
But the House voted 95-9 on Tuesday not to kill the legislation, and the fact that it was even introduced – much less that it sped out of committee on a unanimous vote – is testament to the importance of the adjutant general’s support. As obvious as this change is to any disinterested party, merely suggesting it has been considered so politically toxic that even then-Gov. Mark Sanford wouldn’t propose it. No more. Today, House Speaker Bobby Harrell is the primary sponsor of the legislation (H.3540 and H.3541), and Livingston says he’s getting overwhelmingly positive responses from legislators.
“When we talk to people, and they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, they say that makes sense and I want to be part of it,” he said, “because it’s not about the individual. It’s about the organization, how that organization serves the people and how it takes care of its people. That’s why we exist. With the nation in crisis, we’re going to depend on the National Guard more and more, and rightfully so.”
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.