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Path from Senate to Presidency Not Easy

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Path from Senate to Presidency Not Easy

Election 2008

Path from Senate to Presidency Not Easy

Path from Senate to Presidency Not Easy

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/19157788/19157756" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Whoever wins the White House in November will almost certainly come from the ranks of the Senate. It will be the first time that's happened since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Historian Robert Dallek talks about the often difficult path from the Senate to the presidency.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There is still much that is unknown about who will be our next president, but one thing is certain: He or she will be elected from the U.S. Senate. It will be the first time that's happened since John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960, nearly 50 years ago. President Kennedy himself broke a long, dry spell with his election. It had been 40 years since Warren G. Harding was elected from the Senate to the White House.

We wanted to find out why it's been so hard for members of the Senate to take that short trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, so we called presidential historian Robert Dallek. He joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Good morning.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential historian): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why is it so hard for a U.S. senator to be elected president?

DALLEK: Well, because in general they have a record that is generally controversial. They voted on things that are bound to alienate a certain number of voters around the country. Seems to be much easier to select a governor, who has a more obscure voting record or a political record, and they can kind of mute it during the campaign.

You know, there've been a lot of senators who've been elected to the presidency in the 19th century and the 20th century. There have been a number of other senators, like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but only two have come directly from the Senate. And I think that has so much to do with the fact that it makes them more vulnerable than a governor is, and makes it more difficult for them to accommodate themselves to the voters.

MONTAGNE: But governors, of course, have records. Why wouldn't their records hurt them?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, they have executive experience, and that recommends them to voters, it seems, as opposed to a senator, who has legislative experience. But also, it's the fact that people in the country generally don't pay attention or much attention at all to a governor's record, even someone like a Ronald Reagan, who served in California for two terms as governor. People didn't know a great deal about what he had done as governor. And it didn't seem to affect them very much because it was a limited record. After all, it affected people in California but not in Nevada or New York or Illinois or South Carolina. And so it's not something which is of such vital concern or moment to them.

MONTAGNE: Now, I want to play a clip of a now-infamous statement made by Senator John Kerry about his vote for war funding - and he made this statement during the 2004 presidential election.

Mr. DALLEK: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of audio)

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.

MONTAGNE: An unfortunate statement, as it turned out.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes.

MONTAGNE: But you wonder, could it be said that people who've served in the Senate for a long time forget how to speak to regular people out there?

Mr. DALLEK: Well…

MONTAGNE: A little more so than governors or other politicians?

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, they're not as close to the people, one might say. They're much more removed. And after all, they only have to run once every six years for the office.

But when you have a contradictory voting record, it can be used against you. However logical, however sensible, practical it may have been for you to have shifted ground in changing your vote, it can be hurtful to you in a campaign, and, of course, as it was to John Kerry - describing him as a flip-flopper. So when you're changing your mind, it looks like opportunism.

MONTAGNE: Given what a president has to do in that office, what do you think: Are senators better prepared or less prepared to serve in the White House, to make that move?

Mr. DALLEK: You know, Renee, it's so difficult to say, because how many of us can predict accurately how well an individual will perform in the Oval Office? Franklin Roosevelt was thought of by some people as something of a lightweight, Abraham Lincoln as much too inexperienced to take on the job. And yet when they get to the office, the men I just mentioned all performed so well. Herbert Hoover, such a practiced and storied public official, and failed miserably in the White House.

So what I'm saying is it's very difficult to make that judgment. And I don't think one can categorically say, well, because you've served in the Senate or because you've served as the governor of a small state or a large state that you are going to succeed or fail in the office. I think you have to look more at how you measure someone's judgment.

Now, that's not easy to measure, either, because, you know, a candidate's objective during a campaign is to shield himself as much as he can from close judgments of what he's going to do in the office. These things are sort of mysterious, one might say.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. DALLEK: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Robert Dallek is a presidential historian and the author of "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963."

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