4121Americans now seek a certifiably smart president
- Jan 28, 2012
Americans now seek a certifiably smart president
Right before his GOP presidential campaign crashed and burned, Texas Gov. Rick Perry joked about his mediocre academic record. If he’d paid attention in class, however, he might have realized that Americans no longer consider poor academic performance a joking matter for a presidential candidate.
Indeed, for all the talk about the weaknesses of the GOP field of contenders, this has been America’s most highly educated group of competitors for a major party presidential nomination.
Among those vying in the GOP, all but one earned at least one post-graduate degree: valedictorian Mitt Romney, M.B.A.-J.D.; Rick Santorum, M.B.A.-J.D.; former professor Newt Gingrich, history Ph.D.; and Ron Paul, M.D.
The original field included Rep. Michele Bachmann, J.D.-LLM; Herman Cain, M.S.; and Tim Pawlenty, J.D. The slacker of the group, Jon Huntsman, earned only an Ivy League degree.
The academic standards for president have been rising since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton was the first Rhodes scholar. He handed the Oval Office keys to our first M.B.A. president, George W. Bush.
Barack Obama held one of the highest post-graduate honors, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. The presidential and vice presidential nominees on every Democrat ticket in the past 20 years have a post-graduate degree. This is also true of the only successful GOP ticket in this period, Bush (M.B.A.) and Dick Cheney (M.A.).
There has never been a Ph.D. president during the modern era or anyone holding two post-graduate degrees, or a medical license. President Harry S. Truman never even graduated from college.
In 1968, Duke Law School graduate Richard M. Nixon became the first chief executive in the modern era to have such a post-graduate degree. It took another 24 years before America elected a president with a similar education.
Starting with Clinton, the education of a president changed. Active duty service in our armed forces had been expected for those who would have their finger on the nuclear trigger. But from Clinton on, that is no more.
The office of presidency was unlike any other when devised in 1787. The founders knew George Washington would be our first commander in chief. They gave the power to pick his successors to a small group of elites, dubbed the Electoral College. John Adams, then Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe followed — all Founding Fathers. But by 1824, a new generation of Americans demanded a more populist process.
The president as “common man” era dawned with Gen. Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828. It culminated in the election of the ultimate ordinary yet extraordinary man, Abraham Lincoln.
Born with the humblest of origins, Lincoln was not a celebrated general and lacked political titles previously associated with presidents. Not since Jefferson had someone become president by winning the admiration of his peers with a unique, insightful intellect.
Yet Lincoln had no college background. President Grover Cleveland, last elected in 1892, like Lincoln, became a lawyer by “reading” for the bar.
In 1896, Americans elected William McKinley, an Albany Law School alumnus, as their president. Thus began a new era in the education of a president. Since then, the only chief executive not to get a degree was Truman.
Since Nixon, five out of our past eight presidents had post-graduate degrees. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, is the last non-Ivy League grad.
Yet, in the postwar era, the most consequential presidents have been the non-elite educated: Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Reagan.
Given the rise of the post-graduate presidency, could any of these giants be elected today?
Paul Goldman is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University.