Four years ago, many Republicans argued that Barack Obama, as a fourth-year Senator, was not qualified to be President. Now Democrats are making similar claims about Mitt Romney, who was elected to his one term in elected office a decade ago. When considering the qualifications of the current Commander in Chief and his challenger, I started pondering the resumes of former Presidents, and how their prior experiences were comparable.
This will be split into two sections: both counting down from the middle because the extremes are more interesting. Of the 43 men to serve as President, who were the most qualified? And who were the least qualified?
I do favor Presidents who had diverse experiences, as opposed to those who spent a lot of time in one position. For the purposes of the ranking, it’s probably better to have someone who spent four years as Congressman and four years as Governor, instead of someone who spent ten years in the Senate or eight years as Governor. Though it’s always beneficial to hold leadership positions in legislatures and to spend a certain amount of time in the various positions. Martin Van Buren does not get a lot of credit for the two months he spent as Governor of New York.
I may make significant mistakes due to a lack of awareness of what distinguished a legislator who went on to become President, or what a specific job entailed. I’m an English major and a dilettante on this subject, so there’s always the possibility I will be very mistaken on a qualification, exaggerating the significance of something that looks good on paper, or ignoring the significance of something that is seemingly inconsequential.
With the Vice-Presidents who ascended to the Presidency upon the death or resignation of their successors, I’m considering their qualifications when they took the oath of office.
We’ll start the countdown with a President whose qualifications were middle of the road.
22. John Tyler
He was easily the nation’s worst ex-president due to his support of the confederacy during the Civil War. He served in both houses of Congress, with two and a half terms in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate. He also held executive office, having spent barely two years as Governor of Virginia, at that point a mostly powerless position. When he was chosen as William Henry Harrison’s running mate, his most recent accomplishment had been as a member of Virginia’s constitutional convention.
21. Ronald Reagan
Before he became President, Reagan spent eight years as a the Governor of one of the largest states in the nation. The six year gap between his tenures as Chief Executives of California and of the United States allowed him to be a prominent spokesman for his party.
20. Martin Van Buren
He is the only man other than Thomas Jefferson to serve as Secretary of State, Vice President and President. His tenure as Secretary of State was uneventful, and meant that he would only serve as Governor of New York for 2 1/2 months, which probably isn’t enough time to develop executive experience. He wasn’t head of the state department for very long, as he had to resign due to the petticoat affair. However, he remained an unofficial adviser for President Jackson as a member of his kitchen cabinet, selected as Jackson’s running mate in the next election, and his successor in the election after that. Before this, he had been a generic Senator for eight years, and a state legislator for eight more, four of which he spent as state Attorney General.
19. Herbert Hoover
A mining engineer who became very wealthy, Hoover was considered a potential presidential contender in 1920 on the strength of his relief work in Europe during, and after, the first World War. Prior to that, he had been head of the US Food Administration under Woodrow Wilson. His 1920 primary bid failed, but as a consolation prize, he spent eight years as a powerful Secretary of Commerce before he became the Republican party’s standard-bearer in 1928.
18. William Howard Taft
As Secretary of War, he was sometimes essentially the acting Secretary of State. Before that, he was a Military Governor of the Philippines. He also had an impressive legal career, as a judge in the Ohio Superior Court at 30, and Solicitor General at 32, which earned him an Appellate Court judgeship at 34.
17. Richard Nixon
He was considered the first modern Vice President, due to the responsibilities he held in the Eisenhower administration. He was simply the most prominent VP since John Adams, chairing Cabinet and National Security Council meetings during Eisenhower’s absences, defending America’s industrial accomplishments in a debate with Khrushchev, and undertaking several major foreign trips. Before that, he had a notable six-year career as a young virulently anti-communist bomb-thrower in Congress.
16. William McKinley
As a legislator, McKinley was significant enough that he launched a credible bid for Speaker of the House, and became Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He also had a respectable military career in the 23rd Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, serving as a Captain and earning the rank of Brevet Major. Finally, he served for four years as Governor of Ohio, although it was a weak office, prominent mainly due to Ohio’s role as the most crucial swing state.
15. Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy had a lot of odd experiences before he spent two years as Governor of the most populated state in the Union. He was an accomplished state legislator who took advantage of an year-long stint in a mid-level Cabinet post to be a rather consequential Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was also a successful reformer as president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, the predecessor to the post of Police Commissioner which he created as Governor.
14. George HW Bush
He had an interesting biography before his eight years as Vice-President. After a successful career as a Houston oil man and an unsuccessful bid for Senate, he was a busier than usual two-term Congressman, first considered as a potential Nixon running mate after just two years in the House. After his second failed Senate bid, he became Chairman of the RNC and Director of the CIA. His most significant duty prior to national office may have been his role as unofficial ambassador to China at a consequential time.
13. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
He wasn’t the most qualified Vice-Presidential nominee in 1920, although he had been Assistant Secretary of Navy during the first World War. But that was before he served for two terms as Governor of New York.
12. Dwight Eisenhower
It’s difficult to gauge the applicability of military service to duties as President, but of the Generals turned President, Ike did have the most international experience, so I’m ranking him higher than most. He also served as President of Columbia University, although that was largely a ceremonial title, which he essentially abandoned to become Supreme Commander of NATO.
11. William Henry Harrison
As President, he is most notable for how quickly he died. He was the oldest man ever elected to the office until Ronald Reagan. But those years allowed him to build up an impressive record, as a legislator, executive and military commander. In any of those three fields, he built up a CV more impressive than a few Presidents. Harrison briefly served in Congress as a delegate from the Northwest territory, before he became the Governor of the Indiana Territory for twelve years. During his later years in that office, he served as Commander of the Army in Indiana during the War of 1812. He then returned to Congress, serving as a Representative for Ohio. Later he became the state’s senator and an ambassador to Columbia.
10. Lyndon B. Johnson
LBJ’s Vice-Presidency was inconsequential, but he has the most impressive legislative resume of any many to become President. His two terms in the Senate included ten years in leadership positions: two years as Senate Majority Whip, two years as Minority Leader and six years as Majority Leader. While in Congress, he also served in the Navy.
9. Andrew Johnson
He is widely considered one of our worst Presidents, but the list of elected and appointed offices he held was actually quite impressive. The only man to ever serve in every possible local and federal elected office, Johnson served as Tennessee State Representative, Tennessee State Senator, Congressman, Governor, Senator, and Vice-President. He had also been a small-town mayor, as well as Military Governor of Tennessee during the Civil War.
8. George Washington
The most consequential General in American history, and savior of the Articles of Confederation, Washington has the least impressive resume of any of the first six Presidents.
7. John Adams
He was a major figure during the Revolutionary War, and later the first ambassador to the United Kingdom. He spent eight years as a loyal veep to Washington, before that position became mostly insignificant for a century and a half. He was notable for casting more tie-breaking votes than any Vice-President since. He largely wrote the Massachusetts constitution, the first in the world to feature a bicameral legislature and a distinct executive, as well as mechanisms for the executive to veto legislation, and for the legislators to override the veto.
6. James Buchanan
His five terms in Congress included two years as Chairman of the Judiciary committee. After an year as Andrew Jackson’s Ambassador to Russia, he spent twelve years as a Senator from Pennsylvania, at the time the second most populated state in the country. He later served as James Polk’s Secretary of State, and Franklin Pierce’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. As with Andrew Johnson, there’s a tremendous gap between his reputation as President and his qualifications for the office.
5. John Quincy Adams
John Adams Jr served as a prominent Senator, and Ambassador to four different nations (Prussia, The Netherlands, Russia, The United Kingdom) prior to his appointment for two terms as Secretary of State, when that was essentially a stepping stone to the Presidency, and the #2 position in the country. Before that, he was also the nations’ chief negotiator in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. As a former President turned Representative, he would later become the most ridiculously overqualified member of the US Congress in the history of the institution.
4. James Polk
He’s the only Speaker of the House to ever become President, which makes him among the most accomplished of the many legislators to ever hold the office. LBJ is the only Commander in Chief whose legislative experience ranks higher than Polk’s, but Young Hickory (one of two Andrew Jackson proteges to become President) also served for two years as the ninth Governor of Tennessee.
3. James Monroe
He was a Governor of Virginia, Senator, Secretary of State, acting Secretary of War during the close of the War of 1812, ambassador and Revolutionary War hero. Say what you will about the founding fathers, the ones who became President had some impressive resumes.
2. James Madison
With him, you have to ask the question: How do you rank “Wrote the bill of rights” as a qualification for the White House? I would say that that it’s pretty damn high on the list. Madison was was also a founding member of Congress, and Secretary of State under Jefferson. During that period, he was partly responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. And he also played a significant role in the Constitutional Convention.
1. Thomas Jefferson
As author of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin’s successor as Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State and Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson is the most qualified man to ever hold the office of President. And he made sure that his good friends James Madison and James Monroe had impressive resumes when it was their turn to seek the office.