Historically, the most important item on a presidential resume was military service. Playing on this erstwhile requirement, there is a photo collage circulating the conservative internet showing portraits of the post-WWII presidents in uniform. The uniforms are all military uniforms except for the last two Democratic presidents. Former president Clinton is shown in his high-school band uniform, and President Obama is shown in some African/Muslim looking garb.
Other than the obvious ridicule of the recent crop of Democratic presidents, a point to be taken from the collage is that for forty years every American president had served in WWII. (A similar phenomena occurred following the Civil War.) Sadly, when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992, there was only minimal regret at seeing the Greatest Generation sent to the bench, to be replaced by a succession of politicians who didn’t feel an obligation to perform military service.
In recent years, the conservatives have also talked a lot about the need for citizen politicians. According to their way of thinking, Washington, D.C. is dysfunctional because too many politicians put their highest priority on keeping their jobs instead of doing the right thing. The perfect example of this dysfunction is the budget deficit, which is allowed to persist because Democrats can keep their jobs by deficit spending and Republicans can keep their jobs by deficit-creating tax cuts. What a Faustian bargain by both parties!
Like many conservatives, I am attracted to the citizen politician, a person who has a life and values developed in the real world instead of in the amoral, value-challenged political world. That is one of the reasons that I support Mitt Romney. But a few weeks ago, when I started evaluating Romney’s potential VP nominees, I was shocked to learn that all of them were career politicians. That prompted me to wonder whether America has been run historically by citizen politicians, or is this a conservative urban legend.
Fortunately, infoplease.com, careerbuilder.com, and heptune.com provide convenient, succinct information. Unfortunately, classifying someone as a career politician is not black-and-white. Many of our presidents, especially in the first half of our history, mixed a resume of military service and dabbling in the law while transitioning into full-time politics. Thirty of our 43 presidents (I’m not counting McKinley twice) served in the military (including 24 in wars) and 22 were lawyers.
Based on my somewhat subjective classification of career politicians (no significant other career), we have had a plethora of them ever since the turn of the 20th century – Obama, Clinton, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt,
Interestingly, Mitt Romney wants to be elected primarily on his business credentials. Yet, according to heptune.com, America has had only four businessmen-cum-presidents – Truman, Carter, Bush -41, and Bush-43. Prior to WWII, businessman does not appear to be something good for a presidential resume.