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Coming: Something New in Presidents

by Matthew Pinsker on Feb 15, 2007

On this Presidents Day, it’s worth celebrating the fact that our nation is almost certainly about to make some presidential history. Each of the current front runners for the major party nominations offers important new biographical details to the traditional commander-in-chief profile. After having 43 presidents cut from the same cloth, we finally seem poised to elect someone different.

The similarities of our previous White House occupants are astonishing. In a nation of 300 million inhabitants with more than two centuries of federal history, all our presidents have been white males between the ages of 42 and 78. They have invariably embodied conventional social choices (at least publicly). Almost all were married and had children; only one was a bachelor (Buchanan), only one was divorced (Reagan), and only six had no children. They even prayed alike. To this day, there has been just one Catholic president (Kennedy). The rest were some type of Protestant. More than half of our presidents were born in just four states (Virginia, Ohio, Massachusetts and New York). Almost all of their parents were native-born. Only Andrew Jackson had two parents born in other countries. And nobody has ever served as president without either having previously held elected office, a cabinet position, or a senior military rank.

On the Democratic side this year we have two historic firsts vying for attention — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s hard to say which victory would be more precedent-shattering. There have been only 25 female governors and just 35 female senators, a remarkably lopsided record for half the nation’s population. Still, that’s far more than African Americans can claim. There have been only three black governors (and just two elected) and a mere five blacks in the entire history of the Senate (including one woman, Carol Moseley-Braun). John Edwards, the other Democratic candidate in the top-tier, lacks the historical aura of either Clinton or Obama, but he would also represent a unique breakthrough. Edwards would be the first president born in South Carolina, the birthplace of secession.

The early Republican front-runners also promise to set some precedents. Rudy Giuliani would become only the second divorced president but, more important, he would be the first big-city mayor ever elected to serve in the White House. Grover Cleveland gets that designation in some trivia books, but when he was mayor of Buffalo, the city’s population was only about 155,000 -large enough by 19th-century standards, but definitely not in that era’s top ten.

Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would become the first Mormon president. Recent polls suggest that for most American voters his faith actually raises more concerns than either Clinton’s gender or Obama’s race. This really shouldn’t surprise anybody. Mormons didn’t exist when Washington was president, and they were still being persecuted through Lincoln’s era. Only in the second half of the twentieth century (in the Age of Osmond) did they obtain their more wholesome gloss.

On the surface, John McCain seems to embody the oldest traditions of presidential profiles. A white Protestant male with seven children and notable military and political service to his credit, McCain tries to be all about the “Faith of My Fathers,” as the title of his memoir attests. But McCain, too, would shatter some glass ceilings. He would be the first president born abroad. The future naval aviator was born in 1936 in the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone. By judicial interpretation, this qualifies him as a “natural born citizen,” although some of our more caffeinated bloggers continue to have their doubts. And, like Giuliani, he would be the second divorced president.

But more significantly, a President McCain would be the oldest chief executive ever. McCain will be 72 years old at the time of his hoped-for inauguration. This is an achievement that might have impressed Washington and Lincoln the most. Washington, who started losing his teeth in his early twenties, would have been envious of our advances in medicine and dental care. Lincoln was being called “Old Abe” by his late thirties and ran for president in an era when no more than 10 percent of the electorate was even past fifty.

So today, while we dutifully honor our greatest presidents, let’s also breathe a sigh of relief that our future leaders won’t follow in all of their footsteps.

Matthew Pinsker occupies the Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and is a writer for the History News Service.