In the post-war period, only three presidents have been indisputably qualified in the traditional way to hold the office they won.
One was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces in Europe — a dozen generals have become president — and had served as an Ivy League university president. One was Richard M. Nixon, who served in the House, Senate and as vice president for two tumultuous terms (and still was defeated in 1960 by a candidate regarded as unqualified in the customary manner, John F. Kennedy, before he rebounded to win the White House eight years later). And one was George H.W. Bush, who served in the House, was chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of Central Intelligence, chief U.S. diplomat both in Beijing and at the United Nations, and then was a two-term vice president.
The rest have been political gambles made by the American people.
Kennedy in fact was — here’s a new concept — among the least unqualified presidents of the period, a World War II veteran with six years in the House and eight in the Senate, but a slim record on Capitol Hill. He rates a slight advantage, by virtue of his slender foreign-policy experience, over four governors with no foreign policy experience whatsoever: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The truth is that there is no formula for presidential success, or even for presidential electability.
No major American political party in recent history has nominated a leader remotely like Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, whose native roots had been severed by time abroad and whose Liberal Party effort was defeated three years ago. But the United States has been remarkably open to political outsiders — indeed, the post-Watergate era has given special favor to outsiders.
These outsiders often have been governors who — and here Reagan and Clinton, both leaders of Sun Belt states, come to mind — luxuriated in, and often exaggerated, their outsider status. Reagan was a conservative in a party that had repeatedly nominated moderates, and Clinton was a moderate in a party that had repeatedly nominated liberals.