David Shribman: Who is qualified to be president?
Marco Rubio is a freshman Republican senator from Florida, a virtual unknown outside political circles but already a possible presidential candidate. The other day he won headlines by pronouncing himself ready to be chief executive of the greatest power on Earth.
If Rubio, who turns 43 this month, were elected, he would have less than one term in the U.S. Senate. You might think of him as a drive-by senator, presumptuous in believing himself qualified for the top executive office, except that his 70 months would be more than 50 percent longer than the amount of time Barack Obama spent in the Senate before being elected to the White House.
All of which raises an important question: What does it take to be ready, to be qualified, to be president of the United States?
Here are some people who were, by ordinary reckoning, ready to be president of the United States:
• Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, a disabled World War II veteran who was in Congress for more than a third of a century. He lost the 1996 election.
• Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a celebrated Vietnam prisoner of war who served on Capitol Hill for a quarter century when he won the Republican nomination in 2008. He lost to Obama.
• Albert Gore Jr., a Vietnam veteran and son of a senator who served in the House and Senate and as an unusually activist vice president for eight years. He lost the 2000 election.
And one more ...
• Walter F. Mondale, a state attorney general, senator and vice president. In 1974 he made the extraordinary remark that he wasn’t ready to be president, regarded then as now as a comment of unusual probity and maturity. He spent the time between the end of his vice presidency and the 1984 campaign studying up on the vital issues of the time, and once emerged from his Minneapolis law office to announce to an astonished colleague: I finally understand the Federal Reserve. On the day he declared his candidacy for the White House he proclaimed, “I am ready to be president.” By any reasonable measure, he probably was. He lost 49 states.
In the post-war period, only three presidents have been indisputably qualified in the traditional way to hold the office they won.
One was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces in Europe — a dozen generals have become president — and had served as an Ivy League university president. One was Richard M. Nixon, who served in the House, Senate and as vice president for two tumultuous terms (and still was defeated in 1960 by a candidate regarded as unqualified in the customary manner, John F. Kennedy, before he rebounded to win the White House eight years later). And one was George H.W. Bush, who served in the House, was chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of Central Intelligence, chief U.S. diplomat both in Beijing and at the United Nations, and then was a two-term vice president.
The rest have been political gambles made by the American people.
Kennedy in fact was — here’s a new concept — among the least unqualified presidents of the period, a World War II veteran with six years in the House and eight in the Senate, but a slim record on Capitol Hill. He rates a slight advantage, by virtue of his slender foreign-policy experience, over four governors with no foreign policy experience whatsoever: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The truth is that there is no formula for presidential success, or even for presidential electability.
No major American political party in recent history has nominated a leader remotely like Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, whose native roots had been severed by time abroad and whose Liberal Party effort was defeated three years ago. But the United States has been remarkably open to political outsiders —indeed, the post-Watergate era has given special favor to outsiders.
These outsiders often have been governors who — and here Reagan and Clinton, both leaders of Sun Belt states, come to mind —luxuriated in, and often exaggerated, their outsider status. Reagan was a conservative in a party that had repeatedly nominated moderates, and Clinton was a moderate in a party that had repeatedly nominated liberals.
There have been very few advantages given to insiders. Gerald R. Ford, appointed but not elected president after Nixon’s resignation, was the ultimate insider, with a quarter century on Capitol Hill and GOP leadership credentials, and he was defeated by Carter. One of the reasons surely was his pardon of Nixon after Watergate, but Carter’s status as a fresh face was a major factor.
Indeed, the number of senators elected to the White House is small (16), and the number who have moved directly from the Senate to the presidency is minuscule: Warren Harding, Kennedy and Obama. Together the record of this group is modest, at best.
The recent governors-turned-president at least boast executive experience, a background Obama lacked and one which might explain some of the troubles he has encountered in his presidency. And almost every student of the presidency says that what really matters in the Oval Office, along with intelligence and integrity, is personality and perspective. Kennedy had all of it, Carter only part of it.
The late presidential analyst Richard Neustadt was famous for saying that “presidential power is the power to persuade.” In his classic 1960 work, “Presidential Power,” he argued that a president “makes his personal impact by the things he says and does.” He often added privately that the way he says and does things matters, too.
The verdict on Obama is still out. But he remains more promise than performance.
So Rubio and some of his amateur presidential rivals are more in the main current of American political life than generally recognized. Two other freshman senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both Republicans, are regarded as legitimate presidential candidates. So are four governors, Republicans Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mike Pence of Indiana and Rick Perry of Texas as well as Democrat Martin O’Malley of Maryland.
Most Americans outside their states have never heard of any of them. Then again, how many Americans had heard of Barack Obama? He’s now the 44th president of the United States and the answer to a trivia question no longer.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.