Random Thoughts

A presidential person

... February makes us think of Presidents

by Ann Robbins Talbot

Because February is the month to honor two of our most beloved Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and because our country is in presidential primary season, I decided to read a bit on the subject. What exactly makes a person presidential?

We are on the brink of making history. Until January 20, 2009, the President has always been a white male. No other choice has come down the pike. This primary season everyone has an opinion. I think we will see a record number of voters in Massachusetts on February 5th.

Who can run for the presidency? I quote the Constitution:  “... No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States ...” That seems simple enough. It is quite likely that most readers of the Melrose Mirror are eligible to run.

Our first seven Presidents (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J. Q. Adams, Jackson) plus our ninth, W. H. Harrison, were actually born British subjects from the years 1732 to 1773. Virginia leads all states in presidential births with eight including five of the first nine. Ohio follows with seven, and New York and Massachusetts claim four each. The Massachusetts Four – John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Kennedy, and GHW Bush — were all born in Norfolk County. The only President born in the far west was Richard Nixon from California. So, to be presidential material, an eastern birthplace – at least east of the Mississippi River – is quite likely.

No thirty-five-year-old has ever become President. In the modern day, this seems quite young. Our youngest President was Teddy Roosevelt attaining the Oval Office upon the assassination of William McKinley. The youngest elected President was John Kennedy at 43 followed by Bill Clinton and Ulysses Grant at 46, Grover Cleveland at 47. Franklin Pierce, William Garfield and James Polk were also under 50. On the older end, Ronald Reagan was only 16 days shy of 70 when he became President. William Henry Harrison was 68 when he was inaugurated, but he died a month later after contracting pneumonia at the ceremony. Only seven others were 60 to 65 when they became President. So the general age for the presidency seems to be in the fifties. With the Twenty-second Amendment limiting the presidential term to eight years (with a few exceptions), many have gone on to serve the United States in other capacities. Notably William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Jimmy Carter, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton continue to work in behalf of the country.

What prior experience did these Presidents have? Most were either Senators, Members of Congress, State Governors, Federal Vice Presidents or Generals in the Army. Thirty-one have had military service. In the modern era, family fortunes and skill at fundraising are essential assets in order to run a serious, multi-media campaign.

The third part of the eligibility piece is fourteen-year residency in the United States. This is a mystery – why the number fourteen? When the Constitution was written, it may have been common for U S citizens to live in Europe for periods of time. But why the number fourteen?

And once these men took office, what did they have in common? Seemingly nothing. They all swore to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” For each, the “best of my ability” was different. George Washington earned a salary of $25,000 per year which, in today’s money, would be more than George W Bush. The present salary is $400,000 per year plus a $50,000 expense account, $100,000 travel account and $19,000 for entertainment. Without much thought, we could each name someone who earns lots more than that.

After my weeks of research full of interesting material about each of the forty-two past (and present) Presidents, I have come up with one familiar question: what exactly makes a person presidential?

February 1, 2008

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