In the early days of the Republic, the secretary-of-state-to-president pipeline was wide and fast, with the secretary of state often being the de facto next president. Jefferson passed through it first, and was followed by James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Madison. The shift away from this pipeline happened for a variety of reasons, the rise of the party primary system and increasingly professional foreign policy after the Civil War among them (for more, see this excellent Smithsonian piece). However, maybe overlooked among these reasons is just precedent: in the last eighty years, foreign policy has been largely the preserve of failed candidates, whether through formal office or not.
In 1940, businessman Wendell Willkie ran as an interventionist dark horse candidate for the presidency, lost to FDR by a considerable margin. In 1941, recognizing the popularity of Willkie’s message, Roosevelt sent Willkie off to Europe as a special envoy to Britain. This trip was deemed such a success that in 1942, Willkie set off on a round-the-world trip, covering 31,000 miles in 49 days of air travel, touching on several zones of combat and future zones of conflict.
Following this trip, Willkie published One World in 1943, a book which has the added dubious distinction of being the only American candidate’s book that Nixon cites—and even then, only to take a potshot at its staying power and then steal his title for a chapter heading. But One World is more interesting than Nixon’s credit would suggest. It’s part travelogue, a little Jules Verne, part war memoir, hair-raising suspense on the question of a potential Nazi victory, and part—crucially—campaign book. Willkie, when he wrote One World, didn’t think his career was over. He ran again in 1944, only to be beaten in the primaries by Thomas Dewey.
Dewey also ran multiple times, first in 1944, then again in 1948—the famous upset where Truman’s surprise victory took the newspaper headlines by surprise. Dewey had already written several books, but his 1952 book, Journey to the Far Pacific, stands out. Like One World, Journey to the Far Pacific is a lot of fun to read: it’s a chronicle of said journey to the Far Pacific, with plenty of anecdotes about what he was fed and how delicious it was, as well as pontifications on directions for US foreign policy, many delivered through the convenient mouthpieces of foreign leaders. At this point, it is doubtful that Dewey planned on trying for office again, but had accepted a position of post-election power. In 1952, he was instrumental in the “Draft Eisenhower” movement that propelled Eisenhower—with Nixon as VP—into the White House.
In 1952, Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson for the first time, and in 1956, the second. After losing in 1952, Stevenson wrote Call to Greatness, which reads like a Willkie/Dewey repeat, claiming that he went to “see for himself” the state of the world, and along the way, spoke with “the emperor of Japan, the Queen of England, the Pope and to all the kings, presidents and prime minsters along my route” (34). Like Nixon, though, Stevenson also takes the grand opportunity to both steal and stick it to Willkie’s title: “It isn’t one world, it is more like three worlds” (34). In 1956, Stevenson published What I Think, which lamented the awkwardness of the role of the failed candidate as “titular” head of the Democratic Party, and then in 1958 published Friends and Enemies, about US-Soviet relations and his pilgrimage to Russia and tete-a-tete with Khrushchev (a theme one day to be shared with Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, among others, to the point where Khrushchev probably could have sued for royalties). In 1960, Stevenson didn’t formally run but kind of pursued the draft anyway, until the Kennedy political machine shut that nonsense down. He published a book in 1960 anyway, Putting First Things First, again about Democratic politics in the US.
So when Nixon resigned the White House in 1974, there were two role models available: former presidents, who wrote definitive, long, boring political memoirs that were projects of record-setting for their administrations, and failed candidates, who went off voyaging and came back and wrote themselves up as ‘elder statesmen,’ dispensing the wisdom—often with an Orientalist flair, garnered through the sages and mysterious, exotic palaces and slums of the Far East or claimed in battle with Khrushchev himself, the Russian bear*—from their political pilgrimages. Nixon dutifully wrote his post-presidential memoir, RN: The Memoir of Richard Nixon, and then quickly started traveling. Every other post-presidential book Nixon wrote was either explicitly about foreign policy, explicitly about his relationships with foreign leaders, or contained in part of in great detail reference to Nixon’s many presidential and post-presidential travels abroad. And for Nixon, it worked: by the end of his life, he was hailed as a statesman, if still not entirely forgiven.
The narrative of these books is like the one pulled out by Scott Walker: it’s a classic hero’s journey, from a first great epic defeat through dangerous lands, sitting at the feet of masters and sages (who conveniently agree with the hero’s policy, or provide useful straw men), and then a triumphant return, reborn. But, again, thanks to Walker, we know that a good narrative doth not a good candidate make.
Here’s where we come to Hillary Clinton, and return to the question of precedent in seeking the presidency. There has not been a secretary-of-state president in 160 years. In the past century, foreign policy, and publicly becoming an expert on the issue—including writing about it—has been largely populated by failed presidential candidates, from Willkie up to John Kerry. I was born in 1994, and I remember these failed campaigns, Kerry and Clinton. The older you get, the longer this line of failed candidates going on a voyage of shame and redemption abroad extends. No matter how much we might say (and believe) that we value foreign policy expertise, this is a hard thing to move past.
And so I wonder whether the strongest pillar of Clinton’s argument for her fitness to be president (besides the pillar that is the weakness of her opponent), her foreign policy expertise, isn’t also leaving her open to failure by association.
*Yes, Nixon actually refers to Khrushchev as a “crude Russian bear” in Leaders, page 176.