Those who win: the three kinds of people who become President.

We’re now in the home stretch–thank God–of the tumultuous and tragic 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In the heat of horse-race polls, debates, gaffes, talking heads and predictions by everyone and their brother, it’s understandably hard to step back and look at current events from a historical perspective. It’s true that the 2016 election has been unprecedented in American history, for a number of reasons. But it is part of a historical continuum. Not long ago, particularly after watching PBS Frontline‘s wonderful documentary “The Choice,” profiling the lives of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I began thinking about the kind of people who become President of the United States and the various paths that their lives take to reach that point. There are plenty of historical theories out there on what makes Presidents and presidential candidates, but in this post I want to offer my own, as a historian, for whatever it may be worth.

I posit that Presidents and major-party Presidential nominees fall into three basic categories: “Strivers,” “Opportunists” and “Party Hacks.” These titles are not intended to be pejorative, just descriptive. You can’t tell which category a person falls into without looking at the totality of their lives and circumstances in historical context. Also, it can be difficult to tell between the categories in some instances. To some degree, which category a candidate falls into, and which one their opponent falls into, probably does have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, as I’ll describe. This analysis considers only major-party nominees, not third-party also-rans, failed primary challengers or joke candidates. It’s not a perfect system, but I think there’s something to it.

romney rally 2008

1. Party Hacks

What I call the Party Hack is a person whose occupation is politics, and whose loyalty and service to a major political party happens to position them to achieve the Presidency. A Party Hack is a loyalist, an apparatchik, who has most likely spent his entire adult life in politics and who usually becomes a presidential contender when it’s “his time.” Usually a Party Hack’s resume will include legislative offices at multiple levels, and also some executive and administrative offices. President is just the next highest job for them, and if they go down to defeat, it doesn’t usually end up tarnishing their legacies. In campaigns, Party Hacks tend to be uninspiring, but they do know how to run a political campaign.

The quintessential Party Hack is Hubert H. Humphrey, long-time Senator, LBJ’s Vice President, and Democratic nominee for President in 1968. When he was defeated in 1968 (by Nixon, a Striver), he went right back to the Senate and carried on a successful career there. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John McCain and Mitt Romney, among unsuccessful candidates, were Party Hacks. Party Hacks who succeeded at reaching the White House include Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Party Hacks usually make bland, dull Presidents and they often have a hard time getting reelected. Party Hacks lose Presidential elections more often than they win them, which is why there are more prominent examples of Party Hack losers than winners of the Oval Office.

obama boehner laughing pd

2. Opportunists

Opportunists are exactly what they sound like: people who find themselves in the right place at the right time, and decide to strike for the Presidency while the iron is hot. Sometimes they will be professional politicians, but if they are, their careers will lack the slow, methodical “working their way up” that Party Hacks and Strivers have on their resumes. Sometimes Opportunists are outsiders whose previous experience in politics is short, or lacking entirely. Any President or nominee whose political career has been described as “meteoric” or who is said to have “come out of nowhere” is, by definition, an Opportunist. Opportunists tend to get a long way on charisma. They can also have a vision or program for the country, but most of all they’re great at exploiting existing circumstances for their own political gain.

Opportunists abound in our recent political history. Of the last six Presidents, five–Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama–have been Opportunists. John F. Kennedy was also an Opportunist. Carter leveraged Watergate and public distrust of government to win in 1976. Clinton “came out of nowhere” from a fairly low-level career in Arkansas. Bush II used his family’s name; Obama seized the opportunity of discontent with the war in Iraq and disgust of Bush. Yet almost no one exemplifies a presidential Opportunist more than the current Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.

hillary clinton 1993 pd

3. Strivers

The rarest–and most interesting–of Presidential personalities is the Striver. A true Striver in the making may be difficult to spot at first, because they will always be career politicians or at least close to politics. But, unlike the Party Hack who considers the Presidency because it’s the next rung up in their career, for the Striver, achieving the White House is very, very personal. Their lives will not be complete without it. They quest from an early age, perhaps their very first entry into politics, for the Presidency and will overcome incredible obstacles that would end both a Party Hack’s or an Opportunist’s career. Most importantly, in order to be fully ready to achieve their goal, the Striver must first suffer a crippling defeat. The words “politically dead” and “amazing comeback” invariably appear in a Striver’s past. Because of their single-minded fixation on their goal, Strivers often get the reputation of being dishonest, Machiavellian or playing dirty politics, even when that reputation is not always deserved.

In the entire 20th century we only had three Presidents who were Strivers: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. FDR’s political death and resurrection came when he was stricken with polio in 1921, but rose again to lead the Democratic Party. Johnson took the Vice-Presidency under JFK and believed his career was finished. But he became President and won the White House in his own right in a crushing landslide. Nixon, of course, was defeated by Kennedy in 1960, a rare example of a premature Striver who received the nomination. Striver Presidents are always hugely influential. Their administrations will be filled either with awesome achievements and victories, like FDR’s, or epic tragedies, usually self-inflicted, like LBJ’s and Nixon’s.

nixon resigns

The thing about Strivers is that, once they’re mature–i.e., once they’ve suffered and come back from their “political death”–they’re virtually impossible to beat. Since the beginning of the 20th century I can’t think of a Striver who did not eventually become President. In a little less than two weeks we will see this in effect yet again. Hillary Clinton, who lost the nomination to Obama in 2008 in a knock-down, drag-out battle, is undoubtedly a Striver. Should she win, she will be the first Striver President of the 21st century.

How they stack up against each other.

It’s interesting to see how these personality types fare against each other in Presidential match-ups. As I said above, unless he/she has not yet suffered their “political death,” a Striver always beats a Party Hack or an Opportunist. In unlike match-ups, Opportunists tend to do well. The most unusual races are when personalities of the same type face each other. These elections tend to be especially acrimonious (take 1988 for instance). But note, because Strivers are so rare, there has never been a Striver vs. a Striver.

Here is where I put the various candidates in every election since 1932:

  • 1932: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Hoover (Party Hack); Striver wins.
  • 1936: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Landon (Party Hack); Striver wins.
  • 1940: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Willkie (Opportunist); Striver wins.
  • 1944: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Dewey (Opportunist): Striver wins.
  • 1948: Truman (Opportunist) vs. Dewey (Opportunist): Opportunist (Truman) wins.
  • 1952 and 1956: Eisenhower (Opportunist) vs. Stevenson (Party Hack); Opportunist wins.
  • 1960: Kennedy (Opportunist) vs. Nixon (Premature Striver): Opportunist wins.
  • 1964: Johnson (Striver) vs. Goldwater (Opportunist): Striver wins.
  • 1968: Nixon (Striver) vs. Humphrey (Party Hack): Striver wins.
  • 1972: Nixon (Striver) vs. McGovern (Party Hack): Striver wins.
  • 1976: Ford (Party Hack) vs. Carter (Opportunist): Opportunist wins.
  • 1980: Carter (Opportunist) vs. Reagan (Opportunist): Opportunist (Reagan) wins.
  • 1984: Reagan (Opportunist) vs. Mondale (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 1988: Bush I (Party Hack) vs. Dukakis (Party Hack): Party Hack (Bush) wins.
  • 1992: Bush I (Party Hack) vs. Clinton I (Opportunist): Opportunist wins.
  • 1996: Clinton I (Opportunist) vs. Dole (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 2000: Bush II (Opportunist) vs. Gore (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 2004: Bush II (Opportunist) vs. Kerry (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 2008: Obama (Opportunist) vs. McCain (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 2012: Obama (Opportunist) vs. Romney (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
  • 2016: Clinton II (Striver) vs. Trump (Opportunist): See update below.

1992 dem convention

The Presidency is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. By definition the people who get there, or who get within striking distance, are highly unusual personalities compared to the rest of us. But I think we can draw some interesting parallels by examining those who’ve held the office–and those who tried and lost–that will tell us a lot about the process itself.

Update

As we all know, the Opportunist in the 2016 election emerged victorious over the Striver. However, for what it’s worth, keep in mind the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by over 3 million votes and was clearly the choice of the majority of the American people. Therefore, it seems that the Striver did defeat the Opportunist…at least in the court of public opinion, and perhaps historically too.

The photo of the Romney rally was taken by Brian Rawson-Ketchum and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. All other photos are, to my knowledge, public domain.
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9 Comments on Those who win: the three kinds of people who become President.

  1. Jeff Bloomfield // October 26, 2016 at 10:25 pm //

    Interesting, but you are overlooking that “Party Hacks” are not always of the James Buchanan or Warren Harding variety. Some of them actually have very admirable resumes. Al Smith and Adlai Stevenson were good party men, and both worked very well as Governors of their own states (Smith in New York State, and Stevenson in Illinois). In fact, it was Smith who resuscitated the career of FDR (in 1924) by letting him put Smith’s name in nomination for the Presidency (Smith did not get nominated that time, but in 1928). Also, you skirted a bit regarding strivers (Theodore Roosevelt, I believe, would have been a striver too due to his early life trying to regain a healthy body). If Nixon shows a man determined to overcome past humiliations and prove he was a winner, his actions regarding “Watergate” makes one question the idea that being a “striver” will produce a first rate President. In fact, of the three you brought forth, only F.D.R. is regarded as a great President (though LBJ is considered – despite Vietnam – a highly regarded good President).

    I also question Herbert Hoover as a political hack. Up to World War I, Hoover had been a highly successful millionaire mining engineer. He impressed Woodrow Wilson for his organizational abilities – and was put in charge of humanitarian efforts to feed millions of starving refugees in Europe. In fact, in 1920 he was actually considered by many for the Democrat nomination for the Presidency (which went to Governor James Cox of Ohio instead). He supported Harding and Coolidge (both definitely hacks, although I feel Coolidge has been shown too much contempt by historians since the 1940s). He was made Secretary of Commerce by Harding – a post he kept under Coolidge. It is generally believed he was the most successful Secretary of Commerce in our history. Coolidge did belittle him a bit (“For five years, that fella has been giving me political advice, “Silent Cal” said to a friend, “and all of it was bad!” But Hoover, aside from two government appointed positions, never held politically elected office. When he ran for President in 1928 (against Al Smith), Hoover was in the category of such Presidents as the military ones (Grant, Zachary Taylor) who were unfamiliar with actual electioneering. In retrospect, had he not gotten the 1928 nomination from the Republicans, and returned to engineering, he probably would have been a happier man for the rest of his life. He got elected (in the first really bigoted election we ever had), and tried to show his abilities again. Unfortunately the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression fell into his lap (like the 1893 – 1897 depression hit the competent Grover Cleveland). It has been said that Hoover did nothing – he actually did start experimenting with more government “alphabet” agencies for small business loans and such, but he did it too gently (unlike FDR who came to office in the middle of the Depression, and was more willing to push experimentation in the New Deal). Interestingly, Hoover (who never liked Wall Street) wanted to get a handle on the regulations of the “Bull Market” in 1929, but the Crash came too early. Later, unfortunately, as he and FDR became outspoken rivals and foes, Hoover did point out that as the New York Stock Exchange was a registered New York State corporation, it should have been reined in by the Governor of New York State (FDR). A bit petty there, but FDR was equally petty in his swipes at Hoover. For a party hack, Hoover did not follow the path of others (John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson) who sought election to smaller offices in Congress for a chance to vindicate themselves (Adams in the House of Representatives, and Johnson as a Senator from Tennessee). He did remain a figure of importance in Republican circles, and as late as 1940 was considered for a third run for the Presidency, but the stigma of the Depression had injured his reputation permanently. It was not until Harry S. Truman became President that Hoover’s reputation was repaired – Truman asked Hoover to again head the matter of relief for European refugees. He did the job well again. No, he’s no hack. Hoover should be under “opportunist” as he had risen so high in public opinion by 1928 as Secretary of Commerce for two Presidents and the man who fed Europe after the Great War, that he ran with this popularity (or admiration, perhaps, would be a better description – he never was a popular figure) to capture the nomination after Coolidge decided not to run, and Mellon had decided he was not interested in the Presidency.

    • With all due respect, Jeff, I think you’ve misunderstood my categories. Go back and read the part where I said, “These titles are not intended to be pejorative, just descriptive.” Party Hacks can be just as capable as any other kind of person insofar as their performance as President. Adlai Stevenson, for example, clearly a Party Hack, probably would have made an exceptional, if not great, President. Conversely, I do not argue that Strivers will always make “great presidents,” only that the scope of their accomplishments–whether in the realm of success or failure–are necessarily larger than the others. Gerald Ford, a Party Hack, could neither succeed nor fail as spectacularly as could Richard Nixon. Barack Obama, an Opportunist, could neither succeed nor fail so spectacularly as Franklin Roosevelt.

      Warren Harding: not a Party Hack. Clearly an Opportunist. His political career was fairly short, or at least shallow. The Republican Convention of 1920 settled upon him as a “dark horse” candidate when they couldn’t agree on another nominee. A “dark horse” is by definition an Opportunist, not a Party Hack.

      Theodore Roosevelt: not a Striver. Obviously an Opportunist. His personal biography shows no inclination toward him being President until fairly late into his political career. Chosen by McKinley as his VP running mate, after the San Juan Hill and Assistant Secretary of the Navy gigs, it’s abundantly clear that TR was an Opportunist.

      Herbert Hoover: unquestionably a Party Hack. Worked his way up through the ranks, though albeit by a more unconventional path than the traditional Congress-bred Party Hacks (George H.W. Bush also generally did party duty as opposed to legislative duty, and there is no question that he was a Party Hack). Secretary of Commerce, a nonsense position doled out as patronage to party apparatchicks, could only be occupied by a Party Hack–and only a gifted Party Hack could actually turn such a profoundly useless office into a political asset.

      Calvin Coolidge: definitely an Opportunist, not a Party Hack. Fairly short political career before he came to national prominence. Achieved national recognition due to the 1919 Boston police strike. That’s opportunism, not “working your way up.”

  2. Really interesting analysis and insight. From the other side of the world it seems like a very turmultuous political landscape and I feel sorry for all Americans having to deal with the trumpinator

  3. Thanks. interesting. OTOH, it’s been written that Donald Trump has been planning to become president for many, many years:

    https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Donald_Trump_presidential_campaign,_2000

    Striver? Or Striver/Opportunist? A fourth classification? : )

    • Thanks! Trump is clearly not a Striver. He decided to run for President in 2011 at the Al Smith Dinner when Obama insulted him publicly over the “Birther” nonsense. The public (and likely private) flirtations with the idea of running for President that Trump has had since the 1980s have been along the lines of, “Gee, I’d make a great President,” or “I’d love to do that someday,” which is not the level of lifelong commitment exhibited by people like FDR, Nixon or Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, Trump is not a career politician. Strivers always, always are. Trump wants to be President because it’s a way to be super-duper-duper famous all the time, which is what he wants. That’s different than the commitment Strivers have, again, Nixon’s life is pretty much the paradigm. Interesting thoughts, though.

  4. a guy from alvarado. // October 27, 2016 at 11:40 am //

    i’ll be at the duck pond in 20 mins with a bottle of scotch….

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