Why Do Secretaries of State Make Such Terrible Presidential Candidates?

Before the Civil War, the cabinet position was considered a stepping stone to the Chief Executive; now, not so much

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee © Benjamin J. Meyers/Corbis

During her four years as the 67th secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited 112 countries and logged 956,733 miles, setting a record as the most well-traveled U.S. envoy in history. But as Clinton mulls a second run for the presidency in 2016, there is one other number she may want to consider.


By 2016, that is how many years it will have been since the last candidate with secretary of state credentials was voted into the White House. Prior to that, six secretaries of state went on to be elected president after their diplomatic service.

It might be convenient to trace the jinx to James Buchanan, the U.S. envoy to Britain and former secretary of state under James Polk who was elected to the presidency in 1856. Most presidential scholars, after all, rank him the worst chief executive in U.S. history. But while Buchanan did fail to prevent the Civil War, political historians offer analysis that suggests he shouldn’t take the rap for sullying the prospects of his successors at State. If diplomats have fallen out of favor at the polls, they say, blame America’s transformation into a global power, universal suffrage, the rise of the primary system and the changing nature of the cabinet position itself.

Besides Buchanan, the other top diplomats who became president all served in the country’s infancy. The nation’s first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, was followed to the White House by James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren.

At a time when there were few prominent national figures and only white men who owned property could vote, the pool of presidential contenders came mostly from the vice presidency and the most senior cabinet position.

“In the early days of the republic, the secretary of state was the heir apparent to the president,” says H.W. Brands, a University of Texas at Austin professor of American history. “Presidents could easily hand-pick their party's next candidate. The party caucuses formally selected the candidates but presidents guided the process. There were no primaries, and vote-getting ability had little to do with the nominee-selection process.”

Backroom dealing and the prospect that time spent in diplomacy would pay off later with the presidency played a key role in the contentious and inconclusive election of 1824.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams came out the winner of what came to be known as the “corrupt bargain” that saw the House of Representatives bypass the top electoral college vote-getter, Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, in favor of the son of the second president. Adams won the day with the help of Kentuckian Henry Clay, who detested the populist Jackson and threw his support to the New Englander. In repayment, Adams made Clay his secretary of state and, as was widely understood, his designated successor.

The voters, however, had other ideas. In 1828, Jackson turned Adams out of the White House after just one term and four years later trounced Clay to be re-elected. Clay tried again in 1844 but lost a third time. He would “only” go down in history as The Great Compromiser and one of the country’s greatest statesmen.

Clay’s equally prominent colleague in the Senate, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, also waged three losing campaigns for president. Two of them came after two stints, a decade apart, as secretary of state under John Tyler and Millard Fillmore.

Like Clay and Webster, many early secretaries of state were domestic political powerhouses who weren’t necessarily experts in foreign affairs.

“After the Civil War, the position's requirements changed,” says Walter LaFeber, a professor emeritus at Cornell University and a historian of U.S. foreign relations. “Secretaries of state were much less political party leaders than able, in some cases highly able, corporate-trained administrators. Their job was no longer to serve as part of a political balance in the Cabinet, but to administer an increasingly complex foreign policy.”

Some of the most effective secretaries, LeFeber says, were corporate lawyers like Elihu Root, Philander Knox and Robert Lansing -- establishment figures not interested in or known for their glad-handing skills with the hoi polloi. Others were career diplomats for whom politics held no appeal.

When the presidential primary system began to take hold in the second half of the 20th century, the distance between Foggy Bottom and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue grew even longer.

“Suddenly, vote-getting ability was a big deal,” Brands says. “Secretaries of state, who often climbed the appointive ladder rather than the elective ladder, were untested and therefore risky. Their dearth as nominees and then presidents had little to do with their diplomatic skills; it had much to do with their absence of political chops.”

Voters wanted candidates who had won campaigns and came equipped with executive experience. In other words, governors like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. After Buchanan, the only president to be elected with substantial diplomatic credentials was George H. W. Bush, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who later served as Gerald Ford’s envoy to China and director of the CIA. Secretaries of State, for that matter, were often selected from outside the legislature; prior to Clinton, the last senator to take on the cabinet role was Edmund Muskie in 1980.

“There is an elitism to running foreign policy,” says historian Douglas Brinkley. “You’re thinking about the world at large, but Americans like populists. You’ve got to play big in Des Moines, not in Paris. It used to be in the early republic that having your time in Paris was a big credential for president. It’s no longer that.”

Indeed, the White House cabinet room may be one of the worst springboards to the presidency overall. Besides the six diplomats, only former secretary of war William Howard Taft and former commerce secretary Herbert Hoover have made the jump to the Oval Office. Taft would also be confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after his presidency.

However, losing a presidential campaign-- or two or three -- is a time-tested route to the secretariat. In the late 19th century, Maine Republican James Blaine would intersperse two separate terms as secretary of state with three failed runs for president. Democratic firebrand William Jennings Bryan lost three presidential elections before Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the post in 1913.

Current Secretary of State John Kerry, whose perceived French connection contributed to his loss to incumbent George W. Bush in 2004, and Hillary Clinton, who lost a historic election to Barack Obama four years later, came to the job like many of their predecessors: as a consolation prize.

Now, as Clinton ponders whether to become the first former secretary of state since Alexander Haig in 1988 to run for president -- something another highly touted top diplomat, Colin Powell, gave a pass -- is precedent weighted against her?

Not necessarily, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Despite Republican promises to make her handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi an issue if she runs, being at State “has helped Hillary Clinton enormously,” he says, “because if there is anyone who needed to be put above politics, what with Bill, it was Hillary Clinton.”

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution doesn’t see parallels to other secretaries of state who ran for the White House and lost. As a former first lady who was twice elected to the U.S. Senate and could make history as America’s first woman chief executive, Clinton “by now is in a category by herself.”

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