By Sean Graham
Back in 2011, I wrote an article in the Ottawa Citizen arguing that hyperbole didn’t work in Canadian political life. In the midst of the Stop Harper movement, I felt that words like ‘dictator’ were counterproductive. If you want to challenge somebody’s politics, then do so in a rationale, reasonable way that focuses on the issues at hand. In the five years since, our social media dominated ‘hot take culture’ has continued to spread, with nuanced argument being replaced by name calling more akin to Dan Aykroyd on Weekend Update.
This year’s presidential election exacerbated the problem. Unsubstantiated declarative statements became the norm. Whenever something new came along or a policy was presented, it was either the best or the worst thing to have ever happened. Certainly, the President-Elect, given his Twitter persona, was a major factor in this. There has been a lot written about Donald Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth and the damage these statements have done, but there were also statements on the left that were made without supporting evidence. Throughout the campaign there was one claim that I heard repeatedly from Hillary Clinton supporters, including the President, that I was really curious about: that she was the most qualified candidate to ever run for president.
There have been many people who have run for president of the United States – thousands if you count the Joe Exotic’s of the world. It’s possible that Clinton was the most qualified person to have ever run, but in the interest of cutting through the hyperbole, why not compare her credentials with some of the other highly qualified people who have campaigned for the presidency?
(Note that this is based on experience within government and sitting presidents running for re-election have not been included. Some of these individuals have run multiple times, but the year indicated is the one under examination here)
Hillary Clinton – 2016
Secretary of State: 2009-2013
United States Senator, New York: 2001-2009
First Lady of the United States: 1993-2001
First Lady of Arkansas: 1983-1992
There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton has an impressive public service resume, but there is one particularly interesting element that is often overlooked: she has only been elected to one of those positions. One of the reasons she has not been a candidate more often, is that a lot of her public service occurred when Bill Clinton was been in office.
That raises an important question when addressing the issue of experience. Because she is the first former first lady to run for president, there is no precedent for assessing her time in the governor’s mansion and White House. Part of the reason for this is that the position of First Lady has no constitutional relationship to public policy, but First Ladies have routinely championed causes and lobbied for policies while in Washington. Even with that precedent, though, Hillary Clinton was more involved in daily affairs than her predecessors – she was the first First Lady to have an office in the West Wing of the White House.
Her time in Arkansas might not be as relevant to her public service resume because she was still practicing law at a private firm through the 1980s, but she remained focused on health care and children’s rights during that time. Regardless of her level of involvement, sixteen years in the administration of the executive branch of government, first state and then federal, provides an incredible amount of experience for someone wanting to be the President.
Thomas Jefferson – 1800
Vice President: 1797-1801
Secretary of State: 1790-1793
United States Minister to France: 1785-1789
Delegate to Congress of the Confederation: 1783-1784
Governor of Virginia: 1779-1781
Delegate to Second Continental Congress: 1775-1776
Jefferson’s experience within the government is not as extensive as Clinton’s in terms of years on the job, but the question here is what is the job of the president? If, as it states in the Oath of Office, it is to uphold the Constitution, then Jefferson is immensely qualified. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence and involved in the drafting of the Constitution, Jefferson quite literally helped write the rules by which the government operates. In addition, by serving as Secretary of State and Vice President, he had the opportunity to see how those rules worked in practice.
John Quincy Adams – 1824
Secretary of State: 1817-1825
United States Envoy to the United Kingdom: 1815-1817
United States Minister to Russia: 1809-1814
United States Senator: 1803-1808
United States Minister to Prussia: 1797-1801
United States Minister to the Netherlands: 1794-1797
By the time of his election, Quincy Adams was a grizzled vet of American politics. A career politician – he would serve 17 years in the House of Representatives after his presidential term – Quincy Adams is an interesting comparison to Clinton in that he too had a front row seat to a presidency. Of course, his father had him in Prussia during that time. But he was heavily involved in foreign affairs and was a key part of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812.
Henry Clay – 1848
United States Senator: 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842
Secretary of State: 1825-1829
Member of the House of Representatives & Speaker of the House: 1811-1814, 1815-1820, 1823-1825
Clay came into the 1848 election with substantial experience in both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. And those weren’t empty years on the Washington party circuit as some 19th century politicians have been accused. After all, you don’t get the nickname ‘The Great Compromiser’ if you’re never working. Brokering major compromises through the first half of the 19th century gave Clay great experience in the inner workings of government and a wide variety of allies across the country. As an added bonus, 1848 was Clay’s third presidential run, having earned electoral college votes in 1824 and 1844.
Stephen Douglas – 1860
United States Senator: 1847-1861
Member of House of Representatives: 1843-1847
Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Illinois: 1841-1843
Secretary of State for Illinois: 1840-1841
Register of the United States General Land Office for Illinois: 1837-1840
Member of Illinois House of Representatives: 1836-1837
Douglas is perhaps best remembered for the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Douglas won the campaign that year, but ultimately lost to Lincoln in the quest for the presidency two years later. As a candidate, Douglas had risen through the ranks of the Illinois state government, one of the more interesting state legislatures in the country, before heading to Washington. By the time of the election, he had 18 years in the federal government to his credit. Within eight months of the election, though, he was dead.
Richard Nixon – 1968
Vice President: 1953-1961
United States Senator: 1950-1953
Member of the House of Representatives: 1947-1950
Nixon has the fewest number of years in government of everyone on this list, but 8 of those years were spent as Vice President. In talking about qualifications, though, how much does already running a presidential campaign count? There are plenty of people who have run multiple times, but in 1968 Nixon had the experience of running against John F. Kennedy in 1960, one of the closest elections ever. That campaign not only saw contentious claims and religious prejudice, but it also introduced the televised debate, something which has fundamentally changed the political cycle. The experience of campaigning in that environment may not improve your credentials to be president, but it would certainly be helpful in the campaign.
Hubert Humphrey – 1968
Vice President: 1965-1969
United States Senator: 1949-1964
Senate Majority Whip: 1961-1964
Mayor of Minneapolis: 1945-1948
If only Twitter had been a thing in 1968! Hubert Humphrey was a career politician – he returned to the Senate in 1971 and stayed until his death in 1978. And if you believe the adage that all politics is local, having someone who started as a mayor is nice because, in theory, they would know about the daily challenges so many people face. Add in 20 years in Washington before the election and you have an extremely qualified candidate.
George H.W. Bush – 1988
Vice President: 1981-1989
Director of Central Intelligence: 1976-1977
Chief of the U.S. Liaison to China: 1974-1975
Chairman of Republican National Committee: 1973-1974
Ambassador to the United Nations: 1971-1973
Member of the House of Representatives: 1967-1971
Until he was Vice President, George H.W. Bush didn’t stay in one position too long. That shouldn’t be unexpected, though, as he held a number of positions in a variety of businesses prior to entering politics in the mid-1960s. He came to the 1988 election with only one directly elected position on his resume (how much people’s presidential votes are swayed by Vice Presidential candidates is uncertain), but he was the second in command in the Reagan administration. And if you believe the speculation surrounding Reagan’s declining mental state through his presidency, Bush had more responsibilities than a typical Vice President. Does that lead to greater qualifications? Maybe, but, if that was indeed the case, nobody was saying anything at the time.
So is Hillary Clinton the most qualified person to ever run for president? Having looked through these, I would argue no. A difference that just looking at the resumes of these people fails to acknowledge, however, is that Hillary Clinton achieved everything within a system that does not adequately represent women. We can compare the resumes based on the positions held, but the process of earning those positions was not equal. So can you make a case for Hillary Clinton? Probably. Would it be a fun discussion and opportunity to really analyze the qualities and experience that make for a great president? Absolutely. Is there space for such a discussion in today’s hyper-politicized hot take world? I’m dubious.
There’s on old saying that it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what people say you said. As fake news becomes increasingly influential and we embrace life in a post-truth world, this, ironically, seems to be increasingly true. That’s why these sorts of discussions and debates are so important. They won’t get the clicks and views of hot takes, but that’s ok. Very few issues are as definitive as Twitter might have us believe. If the plan is to once again Make America Great Again, expanding the political discussion beyond 140 characters and TV talking points is a good place to start.
Sean Graham is an editor at Activehistory.ca and host/producer of the History Slam podcast.