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Why the American Legion is drawing Trump, Clinton to Cincinnati

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-31 09:12:31-04

There are probably several million good reasons for a presidential candidate to devote time to the American Legion.

The country’s largest veterans’ organization claims to represent an army that numbers 3.3 million when Legion members, members of the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion all are factored into the membership equation.

Some 9,000 members of the organizations from all over the country are in Cincinnati this week for the 98th national convention.

Hillary Clinton is expected to make an appearance on Wednesday and Donald Trump is scheduled for Thursday as both major party candidates try to drive home the point that they are far more committed to American veterans than their opponent.

When they touch down in Cincinnati later this week, Trump and Clinton will become the latest in a long line of presidents and presidential hopefuls who have addressed the Legion since it was created in 1919 in the wake of “The War To End All Wars.”

The country’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, who served from 1923-29, was the first chief executive to address the organization, according to the Legion, which is headquartered in Indianapolis. In his first radio address as president – less than a week before he launched his series of “Fireside Chats” on radio - Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the American Legion on March 6, 1932.

“Every president has spoken to an American Legion Convention since," said John B. Raughter, Legion spokesman. "John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton did so as presidential candidates, while the rest did so while in office.” 

There’s no great mystery about why presidential candidates devote time to the Legion.

On one hand, the candidates recognize the size of the organization with more than 2 million veterans, along with another million or so when the auxiliary and the “Sons” organizations are counted, Raughter said.

“These are people who deeply care about our country and have given their service to the country,” Raughter said.

“The American Legion is an important voice for our nation's veterans and Hillary Clinton has long fought for the same goals,” said Harrell Kirstein, Ohio communications director for the Hillary Clinton campaign. “She believes we must do everything to support our veterans and that's why she has laid out a detailed plan to ensure that veterans have the opportunity, care and support they earned by serving our country. She will continue to support the needs of all who serve and will continue to put veterans first.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for a comment about the American Legion convention, which is meeting in Cincinnati for the first time in 30 years.

In a news release that announced that both Trump and Clinton would address the convention, the Legion said:

“Clinton has a comprehensive plan for military members and their families, and for national security. Clinton vows to ‘maintain the best-trained, best-equipped and strongest military the world has ever known’… and also promises to reform VA health care and block any initiative to privatize VA…,” the Legion said.

“According to his campaign site, Trump proposes to ‘make our military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us’…His proposal for VA reform includes increasing funding for mental health resources for veterans, better care for women veterans, and modernizing all VA centers with 21st century state of the art technology…,” the Legion’s press release said.

Besides remarks by Trump and Clinton, another key address is scheduled Wednesday morning when Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald takes the podium. While the overwhelming majority of people in town for the convention are just visiting for a few days, McDonald won’t need a Downtown street map.

McDonald, who has been the secretary for just over two years, is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble.

Presidential candidates aren’t the only politicians who want to become buddies with the American Legion. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, is scheduled to make remarks in a video Tuesday, when U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Westwood Republican, and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley also are on the agenda.

The Legion says that it has nearly 14,000 posts throughout the country as well as in France, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

People who want to join the organization must have served at least one day of active duty during any one of a list of wars and conflicts that back to World War I, Raughter said.

The Legion says anyone who served on active duty since Aug. 2, 1990 is eligible for membership because of the Persian Gulf War and the ongoing War on Terrorism. The Legion said it won’t close eligibility until the government declares the “end of hostilities” in the War on Terrorism.

The Legion isn’t the only veterans’ group that has received attention from Clinton and Trump this year.

Both candidates addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the country’s oldest such organization, in the latter part of July during the VFW’s 117th national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The VFW traces its roots to 1899, when soldiers who had served in the Spanish-American war a year earlier returned to the United States either sick or wounded and soon realized that there was no assistance available to them.

The organization claims a membership of about 1.7 million, a figure that includes veterans and its auxiliary.