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by William H. Benson

February 15, 2001

     There is the joke about a guy who asks a taxi-cab driver in New York City how to get to Carnegie Hall.  The taxi-cab driver smiles and replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

     The joke brings up a good question to ask as we get close to Presidents Day: How does an American get into the west wing of the White House and become the President of the United States?  The simple response “Practice, practice, practice,” yields to another larger and more thoughtful question:  Yes, but how and where?

     Based upon a study of the nineteen men elected President the past one hundred years, the two best ways to win the Presidency is by either being the governor of a state or the Vice-President.  In fact, a careful historian has to go back forty years to John F. Kennedy’s election before finding an elected President who was not either a governor or a Vice-President.

     Of those nineteen men seven were former governors:  George W. Bush from Texas, Bill Clinton from Arkansas, Ronald Reagan from California, Jimmy Carter from Georgia, Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York, Woodrow Wilson from New Jersey, and William McKinley from Ohio.  Six were former vice-presidents:  George Bush, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Harry S. Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt.  One other man–Calvin Coolidge–was both the former governor of Massachusettes and also a vice-president under Warren G. Harding.

     The five remaining Presidents include: John F. Kennedy, a Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts; Dwight D. Eisenhower, the World War II General; Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce under both Harding and Coolidge; Warren G. Harding, the Senator from Ohio; and William Howard Taft, the Secretary of War in Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet.

     It seems that in recent years, the voters seem to prefer the governors to the vice-presidents.  Four out of the past five were governors;  the one exception was George Bush, who was Ronald Reagan’s vice-president and who then defeated in 1988 Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts.

     And in the 2000 election voters had a tough time deciding between the Governor of Texas–George W. Bush, and the Vice-President, Al Gore.  The Supreme Court ended America’s indecisiveness and Al Gore’s frantic pursuit of the White House by squelching the election recount debacle and thus, giving the job to George W. Bush.

     What position offers the best training for the Oval Office:  Congressman, Senator, Cabinet member, Governor, or Vice-President?

     Franklin Roosevelt argued against the Vice-Presidency as a desirable position to train for the Presidency, even though he had run for that office in 1920 along with James Cox, the Democrats’ nomination for President.  They had then lost to the Republican’s Harding/Coolidge ticket.

     FDR later as President wrote, “There is probably no better example of what might be called the industrial waste at Washington than is shown by the traditional conception of the duties of the Vice President. . . . There is no little truth, then, in the witticism that the Vice President constitutes a kind of fourth branch of the Government–a branch condemned by tradition to sit in lonely grandeur with remote responsibilities but very little to do.  If, in fact, there ever was a waste of man power, it would seem to be here.”

     Neither of the two arguably best Presidents–Washington and Lincoln–had served as either a governor nor as a vice-president.  But another great President–Thomas Jefferson–had served as Vice-President under John Adams.

     I heard hints during the 2000 campaign and election that the most capable potential Presidents with vast administrative and decision-making talents have not in recent years sought the job because the pay is relatively poor, the stress and cost to run a successful campaign is ridiculously high, and the job carries enormous risks and pressures.  The very capable and the very ambitious prefer business or the media or entertainment.

     Practice, practice, practice.  Unfortunately, there is no school to train for the Presidency.