“I can say with confidence: There has never been a man or a woman—not me, not Bill, nobody—more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America.” –President Barack Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention
In his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the President praised Hillary Clinton’s peerless résumé and called her the most qualified person ever to seek the presidency. Although the President is doubtless the foremost expert on the qualifications for his own job, his claim is inherently subjective. So how do Hillary Clinton’s twenty years as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State really stack up against the other major party nominees in American history? Very well, it turns out.
We will only compare Clinton’s résumé to nominees who had never been President (no incumbents and no Teddy Roosevelt on the 1912 Progressive Party ticket). To attempt a more objective ranking with quantifiable data, let’s begin with what have thus far been the minimum qualifications for the job. Every President of the United States—from George Washington to Barack Obama—has served in at least one of five kinds of government office: 1) Vice President, 2) a Cabinet Secretary, 3) Governor of a state or territory, 4) a member of Congress, or 5) a General in the US Army. For each nominee, we ask: How many of these categories did they serve in and for how long in each category did they serve? We will credit Secretary Clinton’s eight years as First Lady as being equivalent to a Cabinet position—which it was, considering her political role in the Clinton White House and particularly her work running the task force for President Clinton’s 1993 healthcare bill. So Hillary has twelve years in the “Cabinet Secretary and equivalent” category and eight years representing New York in the US Senate.
The most obvious way to start sorting presidential nominees is by variety of experience in the five qualifying categories of offices. Surely someone who has served in two categories is more “qualified” than someone who has only served in one. And yet nominees so qualified as this have been few and far between. Only 24 people have ever been nominated for the presidency having previously held positions in at least two of the five categories. Of these 24, only four nominees had held positions in three categories, and only one nominee has ever run for President having served in four.
Astonishingly, he lost. Lewis Cass was born in New Hampshire in 1782 but moved to Ohio as a young man and started his political career in the Ohio state legislature. When the new republic went to war against Great Britain in the War of 1812, Cass worked his way up from commanding a regiment of Ohio volunteers to the rank of Brigadier General in the US Army. In 1813, he was appointed the second military governor of the new Michigan Territory, and he continued on as the civilian Governor of Michigan Territory for another 28 years. In 1831, Cass joined Andrew Jackson’s cabinet as Secretary of War, serving five years before Jackson named him Ambassador to France. After returning from Paris, Cass was elected to represent Michigan in the US Senate in 1845. In 1848, Cass won the Democratic nomination but lost the election to the Whig Party nominee Major General Zachary Taylor, a war hero fresh from victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) who had never before held political office. Cass remained a major player in Washington, returning to the Senate and eventually to the Cabinet as James Buchanan’s Secretary of State.
While there are several Cass Counties and Cass High Schools and Cass Avenues across the country (mostly in the Midwest) and a Cass Corridor neighborhood of Detroit along one such Cass Ave., there was no Cass presidency, despite his being the most qualified person ever to seek the office if ranked by either number of qualifying categories of jobs held or total number of years in those offices. Zachary Taylor is hardly better remembered, having died after only sixteen months as President.
If Lewis Cass can be called the most qualified nominee to ever run for President, the most qualified nominee ever to be elected President was yet another warrior Whig doomed to an even shorter-lived presidency than Zachary Taylor. William Henry Harrison was also a Major General in the Army, fighting in the early republic’s wars against its Indian neighbors and in the War of 1812. He served as Governor of Indiana Territory from 1801 to 1812 and later represented Ohio in Congress, first in the House and later in the Senate. Harrison won the 1840 election but famously died after one month in office. Ranking nominees who held positions in the same number of categories in order of total years of executive experience (as Vice President, in the Cabinet, or as Governor), William Henry Harrison leads the three-category nominees with 12 years of executive experience. All the others were also winning nineteenth-century candidates: Presidents James Monroe (Democrat, 1816; ten total years as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Governor of Virginia), Martin Van Buren (Democrat, 1836; eight total years as Vice President, Secretary of State, and Governor of New York), and Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican, 1876; five years as Governor of Ohio).
Following the same logic of prioritizing executive experience to rank the nominees who held qualifying jobs in two categories, the “most qualified” of these and thus sixth most qualified nominee ever was Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party nominee in 1948. Wallace was one of the key architects of the New Deal. He served Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Secretary of Agriculture from when Roosevelt took office in 1933 to when FDR chose him to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket in 1940. After one term as Vice President, FDR replaced Wallace with Harry Truman on the ticket in 1944, but Wallace returned to the Cabinet to serve Roosevelt and Truman as Secretary of Commerce from 1945 to 1946. Wallace won no electoral votes in his Progressive Party campaign to challenge Truman from left in 1948 on a platform of racial justice, universal healthcare, and peace and cooperation with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, with 14 years in the Roosevelt and Truman White House, Wallace had more executive branch experience than any other non-incumbent candidate in the 20th century.
The seventh most qualified nominee ever to run for President by this measure is Hillary Clinton. Her twelve years of top-tier executive experience is bested only by Lewis Cass and Henry Wallace. Her total twenty years of experience in the qualifying jobs outpaces so many of the men who came before her that if the nominees were instead ranked only by total years of experience in those jobs, from Lewis Cass’s thirty-nine to William Howard Taft’s seven, her ranking would drop only from seventh overall to ninth. By the quantifiable, more objective measures of comparing résumés discussed here, Hillary Clinton is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate for the presidency since the New Deal era.
Born in 1947, mere months before the Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign in 1948, Clinton is the most qualified presidential nominee to run since before she could walk. With the sole exception of Henry Wallace, she is the most qualified person to seek the office since Reconstruction. Moreover, she is the most qualified Democratic nominee since Lewis Cass and since the first American women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
By contrast, Donald Trump, having never held public office nor served in let alone commanded the US military, is the least qualified presidential nominee in American history. However, Trump is tied for this distinction with another dark horse corporate executive. In the 1930s, Wendell Willkie was CEO of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, an electric utilities holding company known today as Southern Company (the parent corporation of Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, and Mississippi Power). When Willkie was running Commonwealth & Southern, it was an even larger corporation than its modern Fortune 500 descendant, which was created when Commonwealth & Southern was broken up by anti-trust legislation in the 1940s. In 1940, Willkie won the Republican nomination, campaigning against some of FDR’s New Deal programs (including, unsurprisingly, the Tennessee Valley Authority) and for US intervention in the war in Europe to save Great Britain. Willkie of course lost the election to Roosevelt, but then went to work for FDR as an informal envoy to Britain and other wartime allies—a scenario of post-election cooperation more difficult to imagine between the 2016 Democratic and Republican nominees.
Of course, experience isn’t everything. FDR’s only qualifying office was one term as Governor of New York, and President Obama had only four years as a US Senator. On the campaign trail in an April 6 speech in Philadelphia, Senator Bernie Sanders attacked Secretary Clinton’s qualifications on the basis of what she had actually done as Senator and Secretary of State. If the example of Lewis Cass demonstrates that having the most dazzling résumé won’t necessarily get somebody elected, the example of Andrew Johnson shows that being the most qualified person for the job does not mean someone will make a great president.
Andrew Johnson was the only person ever to hold four of the five qualifying categories of office and actually become President. Johnson represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1853, and was Governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857 and US Senator from Tennessee from 1857 to 1862. From 1862 to 1865, Johnson fought for the Union in the Civil War, attaining the rank of Brigadier General, and served as the military governor of Tennessee after the North reconquered it. In 1864, Johnson, a lifelong Democrat, joined Republican Lincoln on the “National Union Party” ticket and assumed the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 barely over a month after taking office as Vice President.
Viewed by most historians as having completely bungled Reconstruction by undermining the noble efforts of radical Republicans in Congress, Johnson was, as the foremost Reconstruction historian Eric Foner wrote in a 2006 opinion piece for the Washington Post comparing Andrew Johnson to George W. Bush, a “fervent white supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves….a flat failure.” Johnson was also the first president to be impeached. Unlike Bill Clinton, Johnson was very nearly convicted, famously surviving his trial in the Senate by a 1-vote margin.
If in the present campaign there can be no question of which of the two nominees is more qualified for the job, Hillary Clinton is surprisingly not the most qualified person for the job currently serving in government by the same metrics that rank her so highly. The one politician now in office who has held three of the five qualifying categories of jobs is another Tennessean. US Senator Lamar Alexander served two terms as Governor of Tennessee (1979-1987) and as George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. After two failed bids for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000, Alexander was elected to the Senate in 2002. Although not well known outside of Washington and his home state, Alexander’s 23 total years in three categories of top government posts arguably makes him the most qualified person not currently running for President. Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump prevails in November, their running mate will join Lamar Alexander as the only other person in office to hold jobs in three out of five categories. Both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence have been state governors and have served in Congress, and one of them will be Vice President.
To return to President Obama’s judgment that, “There has never been a man or a woman—not me, not Bill, nobody—more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America,” he is by any objective comparison of candidates’ résumés very close to right. Clinton stacks up against the historical record of presidential nominees very, very well. But from looking back at the résumés of other presidents and presidential hopefuls, for both those who would run for President campaigning on their experience and for those who would vote for a candidate because of their experience in high government office, the lesson is clear: Experience is great, but results may vary.
Jeffrey Ryan Harris is a PhD candidate in History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.