Sunday, September 26, 2010

The First Secretary of State

Until two years ago, the prevailing wisdom in America was that, although there is no foolproof path to the presidency, the best preparation for the presidency — or, at least, a campaign for one's party's nomination — was experience in the statehouse.

In the last 35 years, that has been a tough conclusion with which to argue. Four of the five men who were elected president between 1976 and 2004, after all, were sitting or former governors.

(Ironically, the single exception, George H.W. Bush in 1988, defeated a governor.)

Many others (both before and after that time frame) either won or ran at least reasonably competitive campaigns for their party's presidential nomination, in large part because their executive experience gave them added credibility with the voters.

Well, that's the way it's been in modern — or, at least, semi–modern — times.

But in the early days of the republic, the real stepping stone to the presidency was seen as secretary of State. That was only natural, I suppose, especially once people began to see how things were playing out.

Nearly half of the men who were president before Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 had been secretary of State, starting with the very first one, Thomas Jefferson, who was appointed on this day in 1789.

It's a sign, I guess, of the role that foreign relations played in the economic development of the new nation. As minister to France, Jefferson was instrumental in promoting trade relations with Prussia. Early in George Washington's presidency, he was appointed secretary of State, a position that had evolved from secretary of Foreign Affairs, but he was reluctant to take the position initially, wrote Fawn Brodie in "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History" — perhaps because diplomacy, not trade, was to be the focus.

But take it he did, and he went on to establish a tradition that continued through the first half of the 19th century.

Six of the 15 presidents who preceded Abraham Lincoln were secretary of State, and other secretaries of State (i.e., Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) aspired to the presidency at some point in their careers.

No one who has served as secretary of State has been elected president in the 150 years since Lincoln was elected — although some noteworthy people who sought the presidency (i.e., William Jennings Bryan, Ed Muskie, Al Haig, Hillary Clinton) as well as some who were mentioned as prospective nominees (i.e., Colin Powell) have held the job.

But that doesn't mean a past (or future) secretary of State won't sit in the Oval Office again one day.

And, in the meantime ...

... in the unlikely event that the president, the vice president, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate all die on or around the same date, the secretary of State is next in the line of succession.

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