August 12, 2004


Can Kerry Execute?: Why governors make better presidents than senators do. (PETE DU PONT, August 12, 2004, Wall Street Journal)

My senior senator, Joe Biden of Delaware, gave a hometown speech earlier this year about U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. It was a thoughtful presentation, but it included a criticism of the election of former governors to the presidency because they had no foreign-policy experience and thus were insensitive and less capable regarding foreign policy and international concerns. Senators who've served on the Foreign Relations Committee, he implied, would do much better.

But Mr. Biden has it backwards. Of the 17 presidents of the 20th century, from Teddy Roosevelt through Bill Clinton, eight had been executives before coming to the White House (seven governors and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower), and seven had served in Congress but lacked executive experience. (William Taft and Herbert Hoover held only appointive offices before becoming president.) The current book "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House," compiled by The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, asked 78 scholars to rate all our presidents. Among the 20th-century presidents, five of those with executive experience--Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ike, Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson--ranked as great or near great. Among the seven with legislative experience, only Harry S. Truman made the cut. On average, 20th-century presidents who had been governors (plus Eisenhower) scored 3.51 on a five-point scale; the others who had served in the House or Senate, 2.81.

Which leads to the conclusion that America is usually better off with a president who has had executive experience before reaching the White House.

It's worse than that even--subtract Truman, who doesn't belong, and you face the possibility that the only successful president ever to be primarily a legislator was Abraham Lincoln.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2004 9:49 AM

What about Jefferson?

And who the heck put Woodrow Wilson on that list?

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at August 12, 2004 10:11 AM

He'd been governor of VA but wasn't a very good president.

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2004 10:16 AM

James Madison should be included with Lincoln.

Posted by: Brandon at August 12, 2004 4:02 PM

Madison had been a cabinet secretary.

Posted by: oj at August 12, 2004 4:10 PM

But you have to ask yourself: don't most Senators and Congressmen think of themselves as executives (kings) rather than legislators (bureaucrats)?

Of course, recorded votes and fund-raising can interfere with that psychology, but governors have the same problem. It seems the most successful candidates are able to downplay the politician in them, as it were. And for Presidents, the ones who are most tied to pure politics (i.e., LBJ, Clinton, Nixon) are the ones who wind up at the bottom.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 13, 2004 1:40 AM

>And who the heck put Woodrow Wilson on that list?

Ah, yes, Wilson. Most white supremacist president in history.

Made the Federal government "whites only" by executive order.

Gave Presidential endorsement to Griffith's Birth of a Nation and thus to the Ku Klux Klan.

And does anyone remember the American Protective League of World War One?

Posted by: Ken at August 13, 2004 12:51 PM