The rap on Senator John Edwards from the Republicans upon his selection as John Kerry’s Vice Presidential ticket-mate was that he did not have enough experience to be President – a thought perhaps shared at one point by Kerry. Being ready to assume the Presidency is one of only two duties spelled out in the Constitution for the Vice President (the other is as titular presiding officer of the Senate). It’s an open question as to what constitutes enough “experience” to qualify one for a job once described by its very first holder, John Adams, as "… the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived". In context the charge seems leveled at Edwards’ short resumé in government office -- a single term in the US Senate.
The short governmental resumé among candidates for Vice President -- and President -- is not unprecedented in U.S. history. Americans have often preferred candidates with little to no experience, particularly at the federal level, to fill out both the top and bottom of the ticket. We certainly expressed this preference in 2000 with the election to the No. 1 job of a Governor with only six years’ experience in public service of any sort.
Richard Nixon was in the second year of his first term as the junior Senator from California in 1952 and barely 39 years old when he was tapped as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Ike himself only had his military career to recommend him, and while he had impressive credentials in diplomacy as a result of running the Allied coalition in World War II, he had no domestic record – and precious few positions on the issues -- to call his own. Nixon had a relatively undistinguished term of service in the Navy during the war, serving as an air transport coordinator in the rear areas of the South Pacific and then as a Navy lawyer stateside. He served two terms in Congress before being elected to the Senate, bringing his total time in federal office before assuming the Vice Presidency to less than six years.
Nixon’s own running mate in the 1968 Presidential election was Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland. Agnew has been governor only two years, and prior to that had spent four years as county executive of Baltimore. Agnew had served in the US Army in World War II and Korea, winning a bronze star, adding some gravitas to Nixon’s lighter credentials as a potential war president. Still, Agnew’s primary attraction to Nixon at the time seemed to be the certitude that he would not outshine the President in any arena.
The ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in 1920 was perhaps the least illustrious national ticket of the twentieth century. Harding was a one-term Senator and newspaper editor from Ohio who was tapped to run for President by back room pols who thought he looked the part. Coolidge had been governor of Massachussetts for just a year prior to being nominated as Vice President; his most famous achievement was breaking a Boston police strike. Upon Harding’s death in 1923, Coolidge became President and proved somewhat more able than the detached Harding, who cared more for card-playing than the messy details of his scandal-plagued administration. “Silent Cal” chose not to run in 1928, leaving the more experienced Herbert Hoover to take the blame for the Great Depression.
Woodrow Wilson, whose two terms are notable for a variety of progressive reforms and the entry of the United States into World War I, had served two years as Governor of New Jersey prior to receiving the Democratic nomination in 1912. He was elected largely due to a split in the Republican party of the time between the party-machine-oriented incumbent William Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt, running his own reform platform as a third-party candidate. Prior to serving as Governor, Wilson’s entire executive experience was as President of Princeton University.
Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1919 with eighteen months remaining in his second term, and his wife Edith is famously thought to have run the government for him. Prior to the adoption of the 25th amendment to the Constitution in 1967, there was no mechanism for removing a President from office under such circumstances. Thomas R. Marshall, Wilson’s two-term Vice President, had entered office with only a single term as Governor of Indiana under his belt after conducting a sleepy law practice for three decades. Marshall reportedly did not see Wilson a single time in the remaining year and a half of his term after the stroke, nor did any cabinet member. Neither did Marshall seem particularly interested in assuming the office. It’s possible that Edith Wilson was in fact better-prepared to be President than Marshall, however constitutionally shaky her “regency” might have been.
“Now look,” Republican power broker Mark Hanna is said to have fumed upon Theodore Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the Presidency following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. “That damn cowboy is President.” Roosevelt, at 43, became the youngest President to assume the office. Roosevelt had briefly been a real cowboy, but made more of a name for himself leading the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American war (during which Roosevelt had less than four months “in country” and spent just over a year in the military) His capacity for self-promotion and the willingness of the press of the day to embrace his image of manliness rocketed him into political prominence. He rode the war hero image to the office of Governor of New York, where he was enough of a thorn in the side of the Republican machine of the day that they thought he’d be less of a nuisance in the quietude of the Vice Presidency. As the candidate for the number two job, Roosevelt was thought to lend a touch of excitement to the relatively bland William McKinley, a minor bonus in addition to the main goal of getting him out of the way in New York.
Perhaps the least experienced holder of executive office in the history of the country was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s entire career of elected office prior to being elected President was a single two-year term as a Congressman in 1848-1850. His ability to carry his home state of Illinois in the 1860 election was in question, as he’d been unable to beat Stephen Douglas in a campaign for Senator in 1858 (conducted by proxy; Senators were chosen by the state legislature until passage of the 17th amendment to the US Constitution in 1913). Lincoln’s entire professional career other than his single term in Congress was, of course, as a celebrated Trial Lawyer.