LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- During the Democratic National Convention, when President Barack Obama said these words of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, I had a flashback to my history books: “I can say with confidence,” Obama began, “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”
It’s a theme I’ve heard often as this campaign has unfolded: That Clinton, by virtue of being U.S. Secretary of State, a two-term senator from New York, a presidential candidate in 2008, the nation’s First Lady for eight years and the First Lady of Arkansas for 12 years, has a resume unmatched by anyone to hold the office, or some say, of anyone to run for the office.
That, of course, got me scrambling to examine the record. The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to match resumes with any of our early presidents. I mean, look at James Madison. “Author of the Bill of Rights” is a pretty good line on a resume, no matter what else is on it.
As well, ranking a list of “most qualified” is an exercise in foolishness. It’s not only entirely subjective, but fails to account for differences between one type of experience over another. That, of course, isn’t going to keep me from attempting to do this blog post.
The best I can do is explain my own biases. I tend to give more weight to experience in more than one branch of government, legislative and executive, or legislative and judicial. I tend to view executive experience, such as governor or Major General, as having more weight. At any rate, breadth of experience matters.
One thing Hillary Clinton has that no candidate before her has had is eight years of having lived in the White House. That matters. Not the living arrangements, but the daily grind of that job, and the up-close familiarity with the toll it takes and the life it requires. Family connections matter. John Quincy Adams, as a young boy, accompanied his father, John, as Envoy to France in 1778 and ’79. Yes, he was just a boy, but to be there with his father, and Benjamin Franklin, well, I’d say that counts as experience, especially since his father was grooming him to be a leader for the young country.
You’ll find, as you look through this list, that being among the “most qualified” doesn’t guarantee you a slot among the “most successful.” Many of these made it only one term. There is no formula. Some men who have held the position just “had it.” They met the challenge of the Presidency and it agreed with them. How else to explain how an often-defeated rookie congressman from Illinois became perhaps our greatest President?
But “greatness” in presidents is a topic, perhaps, for another post. As I see it, we’re lucky to have two great ones a century. And maybe a handful more “really good” ones. If we’re lucky.
At any rate, here’s my list of 10 of the most qualified people to hold or run for the office of president. Out of respect to all of them, I am not ranking them. They appear in order of last name. I view the U.S. Presidency as the highest office any person can seek on earth. Once you get to that level, you’ve gotten above some sportswriter’s effort to assign a number to your name. Also, I've not included any current candidate in this list. You can decide for yourself if any one belongs -- or doesn't belong.
JOHN ADAMS (1797-1801) What would happen today if a defense attorney took up the cause of eight accused terrorists in this nation — and got six of them acquitted and the charges reduced for the other two? Think he’d have much of a political future? Such respect did John Adams command that he was able to fill that role for the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, yet still remain in the highest esteem of his countrymen (though it required some patience and pretty thick skin on his part). To follow George Washington, Americans needed someone with a thick skin, someone tenacious and intelligent, someone willing to tackle difficult issues, because the fledgling democracy had some. Adams did all those things. He was a visionary. Among the Founding Fathers, he was a utility player, able to grasp and express key elements in revolutionary ideas, but with the political savvy to get results from them. He was a voracious reader. Even Thomas Jefferson said he couldn’t keep up with him.
One of the mistakes we make when we think of the revolution is that American success was viewed then as inevitable. It was anything but. The British Army and Navy were the most powerful in the world. Many times, our subsequent freedoms hung in the balance, preserved by little more than a lucky break with the weather or a long-odds maneuver on a battlefield. John Adams was one of the few who seemed to have fixed in his mind a vision for what this nation could be, if it could twist free of British rule. He wrote to his wife, Abigail, in July of 1776, after the Declaration of Independence had been completed. I’ve always been amazed at his prescience, when he spoke about the day (now celebrated on July 4):
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
He might not have foreseen the kind of fireworks we have today, but he wasn’t far off. On top of all that, Adams was Thomas Jefferson’s primary co-author of the Declaration of Independence, the primary author of the Massachusetts constitution, an original framer of the U.S. Constitution, a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, envoy to France seeking key support during the Revolutionary War, ambassador to Holland, ambassador to Great Britain, and the first Vice President of the U.S. He also, along with Jefferson, was one of five Americans entrusted with negotiating the treaty with Britain at the end of the Revolutionary War. High qualifications, to say the least.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (1825-1829) If ever anyone were born to be president, it was John Quincy Adams. But politics, it seems, made him miserable. He was 58 when he was elected president, but he had spent 21 years living outside the U.S. He’d have been happily content to keep doing so, where he could study science and write in peace. Those were his passions. But he was called back home. He was trained in the law, but wasn’t overly fond of it. He served all over the world. The son of John Adams, he accompanied his father as envoy to France, and before his time as president fashioned a diplomatic career that still ranks among the best this nation has to offer. He was ambassador to Holland, to Prussia, was the first U.S. minister to Russia and to Great Britain. He led the delegation that negotiated the end of the War of 1812. While serving abroad he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, making him the only president to marry a foreign-born woman. Donald Trump is vying to become the second. He also served a term as a senator from Massachusetts. He was named Secretary of State by James Monroe in 1817, and wrote the Monroe Doctrine. He negotiated the treaty that acquired Florida for the U.S., and was instrumental in the various negotiations that wound up defining the northern border of the U.S. As the son of a president, and of a Founding Father, Adams was uniquely qualified in the history of this nation for the top job. He was an accomplished writer. As president, he liked to swim in the Potomac River. In many ways, he was ahead of his time. He believed in Federal support for science and national infrastructure. In his first annual address to Congress, he asked for support to create an astronomical observatory. He was refused. It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson beat him for the presidency that Adams’ got a fire in his belly for politics. After that, he would go on to serve in the House of Representatives from Massachusetts for 17 years, an early and staunch voice for freedom of speech and abolition of slavery.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH (1989-1993) Of the modern presidents, and presidential candidates, none has a resume longer or more distinguished than Bush’s. He became the youngest pilot in the Navy at age 18 and was a part of the task force that won the Battle of the Philippine Sea during World War II. His plane was hit by flak in September of 1944, but he completed his bombing run with his plane on fire before ejecting. He spent four hours in an inflated raft in the Pacific before being rescued. For his military service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and multiple other commendations. He went into the oil business after college, and was elected to his first of two terms to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1967. In 1971 he was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. In 1973 he was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a year later he was named envoy to China. He was recalled from China by President Gerald Ford in 1976 to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1977, he returned to banking and was a professor at Rice University, while gearing up to run for president in 1980. He lost that primary to Ronald Reagan, but was tabbed as Reagan’s running mate and spent eight years as vice president before winning the top job himself. (He served only one term, losing to Democrat Bill Clinton after Independent Ross Perot joined the race and won nearly 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate. But Bush left office with a four-year average approval rating of 60.9 percent, the highest for any American president since John F. Kennedy.)
HENRY CLAY (Lost elections of 1824, 1832 and 1844) By the time Clay ran for president in 1844, he had served as Speaker the House of Representatives for 11 years and transformed that office, consolidating its power to second only to the presidency. When he first took the job, it was little more than a procedural position. He also served as a U.S. Senator for 11 years and was Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. I don’t know if running for president is much training for actually being president, but if it has value, no one was able to glean more from it than Clay, whose famous quip, “I had rather be right than be President,” has provided consolation to many who have fallen short of the Oval Office.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER (1953-1961) I got a chuckle the other day when I read a story in the National Review about Eisenhower being a “political novice.” Sure, after he won the Republican nomination in 1952, he was surprised to learn that he needed to pick a running mate, that the party didn’t just do it for him. But by the time he ran for President in 1953, Eisenhower had, through his role as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and first president of NATO, balanced the egos and wishes of some of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, chief among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Eisenhower was not a great military strategist. But without his political and diplomatic sensibilities, his good nature, and his uncommon good sense, the liberation of Europe might not have gone as it did. And saving the world looks pretty good on a presidential resume. Eisenhower was the last person elected president in this country without ever serving in any elected office. But his life, of course, had been dedicated to public service. In addition to being the Supreme Commander in WW2, he had been the first Governor of occupied Germany, setting a humanitarian and conciliatory tone when dealing with the German people while still holding a hard line on de-Nazification of the government. He succeeded George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff in 1945 and accepted the position of Columbia University president in 1948. In addition to being the last military general and last non-holder of elected office to be elected to the presidency, he also was the last university president ever elected.
I want to say a couple of things about Eisenhower that might be applicable today, might not. He made mistakes. He was inexperienced and untested in combat when he shot up the ranks to command Allied Forces in World War II. In Northern Africa, many mistakes were made that cost thousands of lives. As well, the failure of Allied Forces to keep pursing a German Army in disarray after the victory at Normandy and the liberation of France added months to the war in Europe and cost many thousands of lives, including the lives of many German prisoners in concentration camps. Mistakes — even mistakes that result in death — do not disqualify public officials from the presidency. At least, they have not in the past. Of course, Eisenhower was in wartime, and casualties are expected, but given today’s media and scrutiny, he might well have faced so much criticism in today’s climate that the presidency, or even hanging onto his own command, might have been more difficult than it turned out to be for him then.
Secondly, Eisenhower had what I would consider the perfect presidential temperament. He was analytical, and cool under pressure despite his temper. He always projected confidence. He knew the importance of a smile. He also possessed sobering judgment given the problems of the day. He opposed dropping atomic bombs on Japan, saying he believed the Japanese were not far from surrendering, and “I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” He threatened the use of nuclear force as part of bringing the Korean War to a close, but later, when advised by the State Department, National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use atomic weapons against China, he refused, as he did when military leaders wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. His exact words, I believe, were, “Are you crazy?” For his lack of holding office, Eisenhower’s approval rating averaged 65 percent over eight years.
THOMAS JEFFERSON (1801-1809) He wrote the Declaration of Independence. (Quill drop.) The words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” are his words — for the most part. He was the first U.S. Secretary of State, after serving as minister to France and as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. He was the second Governor of Virginia, succeeding George Washington. Jefferson was well-versed in many disciplines, including surveying, mathematics, agriculture and mechanics. He was an architect. He had served as president of the American Philosophical Society, and spoke several languages. His mentor was Benjamin Franklin. At the time Jefferson was elected president, he had written one of the most important American books published, “Notes on the State of Virginia.” He also had served as vice president for four years, and his library of 6,500 volumes was one of the largest in the colonies. When the British burned the Library of Congress in 1814, five years after he left office, he sold more than 6,000 books to the library to restock its shelves. John F. Kennedy once told a banquet of Nobel Laureates at a White House dinner, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
JAMES MADISON (1809-1817) Even during his lifetime, he was known as “The Father of the Constitution,” a title he didn’t care for. A protege of Thomas Jefferson, he was the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. He was born to navigate legislative bodies and was a gifted writer. He was a leader of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he wrote The Federalist Papers. When it was proposed that a Bill of Rights be added to the constitution to help with ratification efforts, Madison drafted them, but he didn’t just write them, he sponsored them in Congress and then worked for their passage, against some opposition. Once a government was established, he represented Virginia in the House of Representatives, then served for eight years as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t just that Madison possessed a brilliant legal mind and the ability of expression, or that he wrote many of the most famous words in our national fabric, he also knew how to work with people, was a major reason the 1787 convention even happened, and once it was on, he persuaded George Washington to be in attendance, because he knew that would help persuade delegates from other states. The Constitution of the United States bears his scholarship, his outline, and his sweat.
JAMES MONROE (1817-1825) He was the last Founding Father to be elected president, which gave him a long time to pile up impressive public service credentials. He studied law under Jefferson. He was wounded in the Battle of Trenton in the Revolutionary War, and was the last Revolutionary War veteran elected president. He served as a senator from Virginia, ambassador to Britain and France, twice served as Governor of Virginia and was both Secretary of State and Secretary of War during James Madison’s administration before being elected in 1816. He ran for reelection in 1820 unopposed.
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT (1909-1913) Taft had a different kind of preparation for the presidency, grounded in legal work and various appointed positions. He was a brilliant jurist, whose life’s ambition was to be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He reached that goal in 1921, but only after winning two terms as President of the U.S. The son of a a U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of War, Taft was named Solicitor General of the U.S. In 1890, where he served until being named a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1892. President William McKinley selected him to be Governor-General of the Philippines in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was a longtime admirer of Taft, and named him Secretary of War in 1904, In 1906, he made Taft the first Provisional Governor of Cuba. With Roosevelt’s endorsement, he easily won election in 1808.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (1789-1797) Washington first ran for office — the House of Burgesses in Virginia — when he was 20 years old. He lost. His problem was that he hadn’t followed an established convention at the time: Buying plenty of booze for the voters. If you study Washington’s career, you come away with this overwhelming truth: He learned from his mistakes. When he ran for the office again several years later, the liquor was flowing and he was victorious. He never lost another election. Washington obviously couldn’t hold a multitude of offices, or win many elections, before becoming the nation’s first president, though he had been a legislator in Virginia for 20 years. But if the esteem of his countrymen is any kind of testimony, perhaps no one has been more highly acclaimed upon entering office. He was elected the first President of the U.S. by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College, then reelected unanimously. He was a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, where his support was so important to inspiring confidence that it was highly sought after by all sides in the debate for revolution. When he arrived at the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, it sent a signal. Washington was a quick study. He didn’t just serve in the military, he learned from it. He learned from his experiences in the French and Indian War. He made his share of blunders. He also showed uncommon courage, having horses shot from beneath him multiple times. In the late 1760s, he began to take political stands against British practices, including the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1967 Townshend Acts. He was tough, intelligent, and possessed an air of leadership it is difficult to explain, but impossible to miss. As Commander in Chief of the U.S. revolutionary army, he was often fighting the British on the front and Congress in his rear. It was good practice for his political career. He was subtly shrewd. He was, for a time, the entire government. He symbolized the union, and was very conscious of that. He, in some ways, governed with stall tactics. The longer the young country stayed together, he figured, the better chance it had. Without him, there would have been no new country and government to begin in 1789. With him, the experiment was given enough care to take root.
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