- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Before the nominees are finally selected, it is worthwhile to get a jump on the inevitable comparisons of the attributes that qualify the candidates for the job. This exercise, a quadrennial favorite, quickly descends to the absurd, so it is good to debunk it before it even begins.

At no point is the absurdity greater than in the duel of diplomas — particularly pronounced in 2004’s pot-and-kettle debate over the blackness of President Bush’s credentials. Far more worthwhile than arguments over pedagogic pedigrees is a broader look at education, or any particular attribute, as a predictor of presidential performance.

In answer to the question whether education or even intelligence signals White House success, the answer is “not much.” If history is any indication, it would be hard to find a less meaningful yardstick for measuring presidential aspirants.

Both camps facilitate this pedantic peacockery, but liberals are particularly infatuated with it. This is not surprising. Liberals believe society can — and should — be ordered by government. It is therefore a natural extension that liberals would naively believe that if the smartest person could be found, such governmental ordering would have a better chance of success.

As with most elements of presidential campaigns, it is tantalizingly easy to get lost in the trivial at the expense of the important. A look at the nation’s chief executives shows education is not only a poor predictor but, embarrassingly to those who would have it otherwise, educational attainment appears to run almost counter to presidential performance.

Among America’s greatest presidents were its least educated ones. George Washington received almost no formal education at all. Andrew Jackson was similarly untutored — and orphaned at a young age to boot. Abraham Lincoln received so little education that he wrote in his autobiography: “There were some schools, so called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond ‘reading, writing, and ciphering’… the little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under pressure of necessity.”

An excuse could be offered that presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries encountered far fewer educational opportunities, as did the general population. However, the low educational levels of these indisputably great presidents were uncommon even among their presidential peers and the Founding Fathers.

Nor does the 20th century exhibit a different trend, even if it does exhibit an overall increase in education levels among presidents, just as it did in the general population. Theodore Roosevelt did well at Harvard but dropped out of law school, correctly surmising it dull. His cousin, Franklin Roosevelt attended Harvard more for the social life than academics and was a C student. He too attended law school but did not graduate. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have commented after meeting Franklin Roosevelt for the first time, “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” While the comment is commonly attached to Franklin, Holmes did not explicitly say to which Roosevelt he was referring (Theodore had appointed him to the Supreme Court) but in relation to the presidency and education the point holds regardless — both were great presidents, not great students.

The same trend applies to the second half of the 20th century. Harry S. Truman did not attend college at all. Dwight D. Eisenhower ranked 61st out of 168 graduating from West Point. John F. Kennedy was a C student at Harvard until his senior year and never earned an advanced degree. Ronald Reagan was neither a scholar, nor did he attend a prestigious university.

In contrast, some of the best educated presidents have been the White House’s greatest disappointments. James Madison graduated from Princeton and is the acknowledged father of the Constitution, but even a generous appraisal rates him a thoroughly unremarkable president. Woodrow Wilson graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia law school, earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and was president of Princeton. Yet his failure to gain Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. participation in the League of Nations is one of the office’s greatest failures. William Howard Taft graduated from Yale, earned a law degree, became a professor of law at Yale, and was chief justice of the Supreme Court, yet finished third when he sought re-election. Richard M. Nixon was an excellent student at every level (graduating second in his college and third in law school) but had the ignominy to be the only president to have been forced from office.

None of this should be too surprising except for those who place undue emphasis on education, or any other single trait for that matter. The presidency is not about scholarship but leadership. And leadership is an amalgam of abilities applied to unknowable circumstances.

There is no particular route to the White House, or trait in it, that assures success. Legislators, governors and generals have all succeeded and failed in it. This does not mean we should not seek the most qualified candidate for any office. But for the presidency — more than any other elective office — what is in the person, not what is on his resume, determines his fate.

For those seeking shortcuts in presidential selection, they should remember we are seeking to discern the indiscernible. If it were easy to predict great leaders, elections would be unnecessary — and we certainly wouldn’t elect poor ones. We must simply do our best in choosing and hope they will do their best in governing. Fortunately though, our government can withstand even a poor president, because our government is far stronger than just its chief executive. What’s more important, America can withstand even a poor president because the nation is far stronger than just its government.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member 1987-2000.

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