Hillary Clinton’s other glass ceiling

The World
Hillary Clinton Secretary of State

Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns with vice presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.


Hillary Clinton has already broken many glass ceilings to get where she is.

But there's another less talked about first she will accomplish if she's elected president: Clinton would be the first former Secretary of State elected president since before the Civil War.

Several have tried. But none have succeeded. The last to even attempt it was Al Haig.

So why is it so hard to make the leap from Foggy Bottom to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

A superstitious answer might be to say there's a curse, or jinx. James Buchanan, the last former secretary of state to become president, has been criticized by many historians as perhaps the worst president in US history, especially as his failure to address sectional divides over slavery helped lay the ground for civil war.

James Buchanan

Former President James Buchanan.

But in reality, the failure of successive secretaries of state to reach the presidency has much more to do with the nature of the two offices, and the nature of politics itself. There's a detailed article on this issue in the Smithsonian Magazine

In the early republic, the secretary of state was one of only a tiny handful of offices of state, besides the presidency itself, and so attracted many aspiring national leaders. It was regarded and used as a springboard. Foreign expertise and connections — especially French — was considered sophisticated and impressive among political elites. It was also a politically useful place for presidents to groom successors.

No less than six of the nation’s first 15 presidents were former secretaries of state: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren and, of course, the cursed James Buchanan. Between them they served 32 years in the White House in the 64 years between Washington and Lincoln.

So what changed? In a word: politics. The clubbish system of the Founding Fathers was eroded as wider suffrage created a more recognizably modern style of electoral politics. A cosmopolitan and intellectual former Secretary of State like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster could not appeal to voters in the same way as a former general and Indian fighter like Andrew Jackson, deemed by many of the elite as a vulgar populist.

That cosmopolitan sophistication no longer had appeal. In the words of presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, “You've got to play big in Des Moines, not in Paris." That popular prejudice continues today to some extent when you consider how John Kerry’s presidential campaign appeared to suffer in 2004 after his French connections got publicized.

After the civil war, there was another change, as US diplomacy got a lot more sophisticated and specialized. The job of secretary of state started going to talented administrators. It also was occasionally awarded as a consolation prize to a defeated political rival, which some argue is what happened to Hillary Clinton herself in 2009, after losing the nomination to Barack Obama. The current secretary of state, John Kerry, was defeated as a presidential candidate in 2004. 

So it would be a historic shift for Hillary Clinton to “reverse the curse.”  But as Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution told the Smithsonian Magazine, Hillary Clinton has already broken so many norms that "by now, she's in a category by herself."