February 27, 2008

What Qualifies A President To Be President?

The survey results are in. A slim plurality of NAPP voters (4) agree with me that the best training available to be President of the United States is to be the Governor of one of the several States. Other (3 each) voters think that attaining a high academic degree, or having had service in the U.S. Congress, are the best available training. Other votes came in for success in private business (2), military service (1), diplomacy (1), and prosecutorial or crimefighting experience (1).

Personally, I think that legislative service is a relatively poor way to train someone for executive leadership. Legislative service is inherently a deliberative process. It involves seeking consensus and compromise amongst people who are more or less equals. Chairs of Congressional committees certainly wield great power, but they do so because they have the backing of their peers and therefore concentrate the power of the entire Congress into themselves, at least within their areas of speciality.

Being a legislator is great experience for learning how to make deals. It isn't a great way to learn how to delegate tasks, how to read peoples' abilities and how to pick amongst people for various jobs, how to set priorities. Executive power is taking the helm of an organization; it is not exercised by seeking consensus and compromise, but rather through personal charisma and the dissemination of a common set of visions, goals, and values. Ultimately, being President isn't about making deals, it's about taking charge. So I have to disagree with those among you who picked service in the Congress as the best qualifier for the White House. I'd have picked "Cabinet service" before "Congressional service." But that's just me.

I'm a little surprised at the emphasis put on the academic background by NAPP poll respondents. If you include a J.D. within the ranks of a "high academic degree" then certainly many of our Presidents have had that degree (or its equivalent) but certainly not all of them. The current President holds a Harvard MBA, and is the first President to have that degree. His predecessor has a Yale J.D. Before that, you've got to back in history a ways to find a President who held a degree more advanced than a B.A. or its equivalent. George H.W. Bush holds only a bachelor's degree in economics, although he did make Phi Beta Kappa. Ronald Reagan also only held a bachelor's degree in economics (and he doubled in sociology). Jimmy Carter holds a bachelor's degree in nuclear physics (from Annapolis, which couldn't have been easy).

In fact, the postwar era, we've had only four Presidents with postgraduate degrees: Bush the Younger, Clinton, Gerald Ford, who got an LL.B. (the then-equivalent of a J.D.) from Yale; and Nixon, whose J.D. was from Duke. If you want a President with an advanced degree other than in law, you've got to go all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, who got a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in history and political science. I believe that Wilson is the only President to boast a Ph.D. and that he and Bush the Younger are the only ones to boast a graduate degree other than in law, but I haven't done the research to confirm those facts.

In fact, while many of our Presidents have been lawyers, many of them never got J.D.'s (or their then-equivalents) because until about the 1950's, attaining a J.D. was generally not a prerequisite to being admitted to the bar and before the 20th century, it was highly unusual for a lawyer to complete law school -- for the most part, law schools as we would recognize them today didn't exist, and most lawyers got their training by way of what could best be called "apprenticeships."

Harry Truman never even went to college.

This isn't to say that guys like Truman or Carter were dumb or that Lincoln was a bad lawyer because he never went to law school. These guys were really smart, and Lincoln was one of the best lawyers this nation has ever produced. It just means they didn't get all that much fancy education, for whatever reason. And other than a law degree, post-bacchalaurelate degrees have not been pursued by the men who became Presidents. So I would submit that educational achievement is probably not as significant a criterion for advancement to the Oval Office as, say, raw mental ability. We do want our President to be smart, that's for sure.

Of the major candidates remaining in the race for President today, John McCain holds a bachelor's degree from Annapolis (he was ranked 894th in a class of 899 graduates); Hillary Clinton was valedictorian in political science at Wellesley College and holds a J.D. from Yale; Barack Obama's bachelor's degree in political science is from Columbia and his J.D. is from Harvard, which was awarded magna cum laude. (This would be the time to derisively snort, "Oh, couldn't make summa, huh?" as if you could have possibly got better grades than he did.)

None of them have any personal experience in government other than in legislatures, unless you count Hillary Clinton's quasi-cabinet level service in her husband's administration putting together a health care reform proposal that ultimately failed. So if you're going to pick among them based on their educational achievement, I would say that Obama's is the most impressive, followed closely by Clinton's.

I was ultimately attracted to Rudy Giuliani as a candidate because he seemed to best possess the inspirational and managerial qualities one looks for in executive leadership. Obviously, he's not an option any more. So of demonstrated executive experience, I like John McCain's record as a military leader best. He wasn't much of a leader in his early and middle military career, the part for which he is famous. But after he got back from The Nam, he turned around the largest air squadron in the Navy and made it the best. But I have to question whether military leadership translates into the ability to lead the civilian government; in the military, there can be real consequences to not following orders while in the government, it can be very difficult to persuade civil servants to do things differently from the way they have been doing them. And McCain's governmental experience, a third of his lifetime, has been in Congress.

Hillary Clinton's work in her husband's administration seems like Cabinet-level service to me, and it's clear that she's learned something from that experience. But she couldn't inspire a starving man to go to a buffet. Barack Obama has no executive leadership to speak of on his resume, but he possesses more ability to inspire than McCain and Clinton combined. That counts for a lot, but it's not the same thing as actually running something more complex than an Senatorial office with a staff of twenty or so people.

All told, it seems that we have a slate of candidates to choose from who do not have the kind of significant executive, managerial experience that I would like to see in a President. And particularly if McCain is elected (I know the odds are against it but November is a long way away) the choice of a vice-President will matter a lot. I would hope, then, to see someone with some gubernatorial experience in that slot, whether that person be a Democrat or a Republican.

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