Richard Brookhiser: What's a Resume Got to Do with It? (Re: Obama)





[Brookhiser is a historian and author of What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers.]

Barack Obama is the freshest face in the early lineup of presidential candidates. Is he too fresh? Would eight years in the Illinois state senate and four in the U.S. Senate qualify him for the Oval Office in 2008? American political history gives an answer: a resounding probably.

Thirty-seven men have been elected President since 1789, and the American people have applied two different standards in evaluating their achievements. The first was formulated by Alexander Hamilton, who test-drove the presidency in the Federalist papers. The difficulty of winning the job, he argued, virtually guaranteed it would be held by the best men. "Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity," could "elevate a man to the first honors in a single state." But only "characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue" could impress the nation as a whole. The first seven Presidents, who filled the job for almost a half-century, confirmed Hamilton's prediction. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were heroes of the American Revolution. James Madison was the prime mover in the push to write and ratify the Constitution. James Monroe and John Quincy Adams had signal diplomatic triumphs: Monroe bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoléon Bonaparte, doubling the country's size, and Adams, as Monroe's Secretary of State, conceived the Monroe Doctrine, which waved Europe off the western hemisphere. Andrew Jackson, the frontier warrior, beat the Creek Indians in the old Southwest and the British in New Orleans.

It was not until the eighth President, Martin Van Buren, that America aimed lower. Van Buren was a smooth self-made man from upstate New York who clambered to leadership first in his state, then in the Democratic Party nationwide. He was a wire puller and wheeler-dealer. Former President John Quincy Adams praised his "calmness," "gentleness" and "discretion," though not his "profound dissimulation" and "fawning servility." Van Buren was a pol, first, last and always. He showed that intrigue and the art of popularity were now enough to win the White House. Since 1841, most successful presidential candidates have passed the Van Buren test. The electorate wants leaders who have played the game, even if they haven't been All-Stars. It's a low but sensible hurdle; Obama qualifies by that standard.

Voters also don't take kindly to nonpoliticians: two businessmen, Wendell Willkie and Ross Perot, made serious runs for the White House, although neither came close. Americans will elect a political neophyte only if he passes the Hamilton test of pre-eminent ability. Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower had never held elective office, but they won their wars. Some Presidents pass both tests: Theodore Roosevelt fought well in the Spanish-American War and in New York State politics. Among the prospective 2008 candidates, only one has shown pre-eminent ability: Rudy Giuliani, in solving the crime problem in the nation's largest city and in his response to 9/11.

But is pre-eminent ability a reliable predictor of success? It doesn't guarantee victory at the polls. Henry Clay was a master of legislative finesse who helped broker the Missouri Compromises of 1820-21, a deal between slave states and free states that kept the two sides from each other's throats for 30 years. Yet he failed to become President in three tries. ...


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George Robert Gaston - 2/21/2007

Yes, Hamilton was a fine scribbler and fund raiser. However, some say the prohibition against non-native Americans being president was aimed at the boy. In the end his time may have been better spent in the more practical matter of marksmanship.

For years Democrats painted Dwight Eisenhower as a do nothing president, as they drove down the interstate.