There’s another reason a Clinton win would be historic. It has nothing to do with being a woman.
Hillary Clinton was formerly the Secretary of State, a one-time launching pad for the top job in early America that hasn't been on presidential resumes in more than 150 years. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Thomas Jefferson was one before becoming president. So was James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. In 1857, James Buchanan became the last president to hold the distinction. And if Hillary Clinton wins the election, she will join them.
So what would the first female president, if elected in this brutally divided and digitally driven modern-day election, have in common with these founding fathers and pre-Civil War presidents? It's a job title: They are the only ones to have served as Secretary of State before reaching the Oval Office, a one-time launching pad for the top job in early America that hasn't been on presidential resumes in more than 150 years.
While it might seem like a natural stepping stone to the presidency — a job that requires diplomatic and negotiating skills, getting photographed with world leaders, understanding global conflicts and acclimating to a grueling travel schedule that would prepare anyone for a presidential campaign — it's been a long time since it's been seen as one. The reasons range from a shift in American politics to an evolution in how foreign affairs are handled to the natural complexity of the job and the personal relationship between the president and his top deputies.
"It's not a great billet if you want to become president," says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "When anything goes wrong in the world, you’re being held responsible for it."
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First, a little history. In the early days of the nation, the Secretary of State's job was vastly different. There was a relatively small federal government. The people who held the Cabinet position were seen to speak for the national interest.
"These were figures who could claim to speak for the country and be recognized as national figures" by European leaders, says Jeremi Suri, a professor of history, leadership and global affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. Five of the first eight presidents had been Secretary of State first. At a time without political primaries, "the founding fathers presumed that the Secretary of State would be, in a sense, a nurturing position [for] those who ascend to presidency."
But after the famously contentious 1824 election, when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams became president after a decision by the House of Representatives, a shift occurred. The political party system took hold, putting more weight on candidates who could win votes and elections than those with a history of political appointments. Moreover, a Western expansion cut the influence of a figure who was America's face in Europe, Brinkley says. "You kind of wanted to define yourself as an American and not someone who had spent a lot of time abroad," he says. "We shed the notion of the European influence on American politics."
And while there were exceptions — former Secretary of States Martin Van Buren, who became president in 1837, and James Buchanan, who is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents for his failure to avert Civil War — the role has not again been a stop on the road to the Oval Office.
In modern times, historians say, that's largely because the power of the position has faded while the complexities of it have only grown. While the late 1940s and 1950s were seen, historians say, as the apex of the State Department's power with the tenures of George Marshall, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, they were not seen as presidential figures. Marshall was "utterly and completely apolitical, a self-effacing, efficient public servant," said Anders Stephanson, a professor of history at Columbia University, in an email. Acheson was attacked for his role in shaping foreign policy during the Cold War, while being criticized for his accent. He was "denounced as a Anglophile cookie pusher in striped pants," Stephanson said, while Dulles, despite an illustrious pedigree, was "never what you might call a person of any domestic political stature."
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Since the late 1950s, Suri says, as American foreign policy became more about war-making than peace-making, the Secretary of State has not been as powerful as the Secretary of Defense. Perhaps most critical, the creation of the National Security Council in the late 1940s shifted foreign policy into the White House. As that happened, he says, "it takes the glory away from the Secretary of State, who loses day-to-day war making to the Secretary of Defense and day-to-day foreign policy to the National Security Adviser."
Instead, the glory more often goes to the president. As Stephanson said in an email, "the Secretary of State can clock a million miles, 112 countries, talk to endless numbers of people endlessly about endlessly difficult problems, but when push comes to shove — a crisis — or a major initiative, the president and the White House take center stage at once and power is revealed to be far from Foggy Bottom." This is partly due to the structure of presidential power, he notes: Presidents can assert their will more on the world stage than they can on domestic issues, so they lean on it when they can.
Meanwhile, presidents are often looking for loyalists rather than those with larger ambitions of their own. After the tumultuous tenure of Alexander Haig, who once called himself the "vicar" of foreign policy and did later mount a presidential run himself, George Shultz's appeal to Reagan, notes Brinkley, was that "he had zero political ambition for himself." Other loyal Secretaries of State — Condoleezza Rice to George W. Bush, Dean Acheson to Harry Truman — have not aimed for higher office. In today's world, says Brinkley, "you inherent the mistakes of your president and can’t fully differentiate yourself without being too disloyal. You don’t get wings. You get tied to the hips of the president you serve, but the accomplishments belong to the president."
If elected, Clinton could break the mold. She has, of course, been dogged by the controversies of her time at State — the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, as well as her private e-mail server — that have helped to keep what she achieved in the job from breaking through during this campaign. The Secretary of State, says Suri, must "take ownership of almost inherently controversial issues. You acquire so many negatives and the negative voices are loud, and it makes it impossible to discuss the policy accomplishments that a Secretary of State would want to discuss. That doesn't happen for a governor of a state."
Of course, for some — William Jennings Bryan, Charles Evans Hughes, John Kerry and Clinton herself — the role has not been a stepping stone, but something of a consolation prize, given after running for the highest office in the land (sometimes several times). Which makes for yet another notable distinction for Clinton to add to her political resume if she wins. In addition to being the first woman, first First Lady, first Secretary of State in more than 150 years, and even first Cabinet member of any kind to hold the job since 1928, if elected, she would be also be the first in modern history to run for president both before and after serving as the nation's chief diplomat.
For almost twenty years, Hillary Rodham Clinton put her political aspirations on hold when she moved to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton, who would become the country's 42nd president. The former New York senator, secretary of state and Democratic nominee for president would be the first woman to hold the office if she is elected. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
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