The threshold question of basic “qualifications” to be U.S. President has been in the forefront for the two most recent Presidencies, to a degree that seems unprecedented. For both Bush II and Obama, a deep skepticism (to put it mildly) has permeated around their basic “qualifications” for the job, for vastly different reasons. We are not talking here about constitutional qualifications, like age or citizenship, but competencies demanded by the job. For Obama, the discredited “birthers” focused on both.
Because the U.S. Presidency is an extremely demanding, one-of-a-kind, job, not very many Presidents have been especially prepared for the position when they first took office. How could they be, especially after the U.S. became a world power and a big player in international affairs in the first half of the 20th century? Unless you’ve been a secretary of state or defense (with portfolio to improvise U.S. foreign/defense policy), CIA Director, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or a Vice President who was empowered to make real decisions, there is a huge hole in almost anyone’s resume.
Reading Foreign Affairs Magazine or going on Congressional junkets abroad, doesn’t quite cut it either. Heading a foreign affairs committee in Congress counts for something, but it’s still not the same as being a real diplomat or executive point person in foreign or defense policy. Having been Governor of a large complex state helps a lot, but still doesn’t satisfy the big foreign and defense policy requirements, even if you can see Russia from the Governor’s mansion.
If you place the resumes of our last twelve Presidents at the time they first ran for the High Office (or succeeded to it), side by side with the Job Description, more than half (the 7 in Red) would have failed the “resume test;” another three (Blue) would have barely passed; only two — Eisenhower and Bush I — would have received a grade in the B to B+ range. At least that’s my audacious and subjective argument, depicted in the color coded table.
The gentlemen in the Red section are all essentially at the same level. Historians would say there’s a mixture of great and failed Presidents in this group. The same goes for the chaps with the better resumes, in blue and yellow.
For each attribute, I (subjectively) assigned points on a scale of 1-5 for the last twelve U.S. Presidents (when they first took office). All of this is of course my imperfect judgment. The last column expresses each total score as a percent of the maximum. The maximum is 35 points (a perfect “5” on each of seven attributes).
Every President’s points would of course have been considerably higher if they ran for a second term. Having been President is still by far the best experience for being President.
Yes, Gerald Ford, brought a lot to the table. He was a Yale Law School grad; a Naval officer with combat medals, a Congressman for 25 years, with a lot of budget experience; Republican Minority Leader of the House…..all before he was appointed Vice President (replacing the discredited Agnew) and succeeded to the Presidency (after Nixon resigned). Too bad he was “boring,” had a ponderous speaking style, and was lampooned mercilessly by Chevy Chase on SNL, ironically portraying the most athletic U.S. President in history as a chronic prat-faller.
You may argue with me about the Elder Bush having too high a grade, and Reagan too low. But, Pappy Bush was “Mr. Resume:” Congressman, UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, CIA Director….and more. Check him out.
What about Reagan’s low grade? First, a reminder: these scores don’t reflect later performance or reputation as President. Reagan, except for having been Governor of California for eight years, which is a very big deal, was weak on the other criteria. (Obviously, my opinion). Yes, I gave Reagan only a “2” on knowledge and education. We can debate that. He was totally lacking, at the time of his first run, in anything related to foreign affairs, defense, or national security. (So was Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Bush II). Obama’s low score on the resume test does not reflect what I think of his Presidency.
Although Harry Truman was Vice President before he took the High Office, he was in that position for only 82 days when FDR died, and had been ignored and marginalized during that short time. He was mocked by adversaries (and even by some in his own party) as a failed haberdasher from the “corrupt,” Missouri Pendergast machine. Views about the Truman Presidency of course turned 180 degrees years after he left office.
The lack of “qualified” candidates using the resume test should not be a surprise. Besides the difficulties of meeting the foreign and defense policy specs, the advent of primary elections in the 1960s and 1970s, which replaced party conventions and smoke filled rooms, with the (so called) “fresh air” of “democratic elections,” changed everything. Being able to raise money and shine in the media spot light, became more important than satisfying attributes on the Presidential Job Description. All of that was already in play in the Kennedy nomination (see Theodore White’s famous account). And even more so in the nominations of Clinton, Reagan, and Obama. (Once again; that doesn’t mean none were good Presidents).
Am I lamenting the loss of party conventions and cloak room deals? Yes, to some degree. There are are still cloak room cabals, only now they’re conducted in fancy hotels, gated estates, or board rooms, with very big money players.