Fathers and Schools: Presidential Parallels

Michael Medved has an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal reflecting on the strange continuity that this election marks the seventh in a row featuring either a privileged son or a man with no relationship with his biological father, and wonders why:

In one sense, these extreme backgrounds now dominate the presidential process because that process itself has become so extreme. A rising politico can no longer wait for colleagues to push or pull him toward a White House race, or dream of sudden success at some brokered convention. A serious candidacy currently requires obsessive pursuit of power over the course of several years, with expenditure of tens of millions in campaign cash.

What sort of person willingly undergoes such an ordeal? More and more, it seems, either a privileged individual with a profound sense of entitlement, or an unlikely upstart whose status as miraculous survivor amounts to his own anointing. But despite a shared sense of determination and destiny, famous-father candidates tend to run dramatically different campaigns than do their no-father counterparts.

I notice another continuity at work.  Our last president had a Harvard MBA.  Our current one has a Harvard JD.  If Romney is our next president, he will bring to office—both.  Oy vey.  This is only the beginning of what I call the “presumptive credentialism” of our modern presidential fields.  Here’s my reflection on it from my lecture last Friday at Regent University:

Ronald Reagan had a much sounder attitude about the presumptive credentialism of our time.  When told that one of his prospective cabinet nominees held a graduate degree from Harvard, Reagan replied, “Well, we won’t hold that against him.”   Reagan—hailing from tiny Eureka College in Illinois—is what social scientists would call an “outlier” in the data of presidential educations.  Although many modern presidents come from humble lower middle-class and small town backgrounds—such as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, and Reagan—nearly all who were elected to office come with Ivy League educations or their close equivalent, combined with close association with what still deserves to be regarded as the Eastern Establishment.  Even Jimmy Carter, a genuine outsider figure, attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and Richard Nixon did penance for his small-town California roots and undergraduate education at Whittier College by attending Duke law school and becoming a Wall Street lawyer in New York as the path to the White House in 1968, rather than remaining in California after his humiliating defeat in the 1962 governor’s race.  Our last four presidents were either Harvard or Yale men.  Both Roosevelts were Harvard men, as was John F. Kennedy; Herbert Hoover matriculated from Stanford; Calvin Coolidge from Amherst, William Howard Taft from Yale, and Woodrow Wilson had been president of Princeton, though the less said about him and his education the better.  Among presidents elected in their own right—that is, those who did not reach office by the accident of being selected Vice President like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson—you have to go all the way back to Warren Harding (Ohio Central College) to find a president with such un-establishment educational credentials as Ronald Reagan.

There’s more on this subject in a new book that is shipping now from Amazon.  (And yes, a Kindle edition is now up and running, for those of you who’ve been asking.)

By the way, today is Ronaldus Magnus’s 101st birthday.

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