–by Joanna Hallac
Election Day is fast approaching, and since we like to look at all things congressional and historical, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at those men (yes, sadly it’s been only men at this point) that went right from Congress to the White House, a rather infrequent occurrence. While many of those who have run for president and vice president had, at one point in their careers, been a member of Congress, only a handful of times in our country’s history have sitting senators or representatives made that biggest of jumps from the Capitol to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Given the exclusivity of this club, it’s probably both worthwhile and interesting to take a closer look at those gifted men who have been able to accomplish that goal.
First up was James A. Garfield, our 20th president, who was the only sitting member of the House of Representatives (he was from Ohio) to ever win the presidency, which he did in the 1880 election; however, this fact comes with a caveat. At the time of his election to the presidency, he had also won election to the U.S. Senate from Ohio, which basically makes him extra special. Technically though, Garfield was a sitting member of the House (from which he would have to resign in order to take office) when he was elected as our 20th U.S. President.
Fast-forward forty years to the 1920 presidential election when another Ohioan, this time Senator Warren G. Harding, a member of the Senate since 1915, won the coveted prize, becoming our country’s 29th president. Known more for his corrupt circle of friends from back home, often referred to as the “Ohio gang,” as well as his romantic affairs rather than his great policies, Harding did not survive long enough to see whether he could win reelection in the midst of numerous scandals, as he died of a heart attack in August 1923. Harding, whose brand of conservatism is said to have been the start of today’s modern Republican Party, is generally acknowledged as the worst president in American history, certainly not the distinction Harding was likely going for when he ran for the job.
Next up on our list is a little known guy from Massachusetts with a very unfamiliar last name (note my sarcasm). John F. Kennedy was the junior senator from his home state when he ran against and defeated then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. That election was also the first time that there was a televised presidential debate, an occasion many historians and political scientists point to as being the turning point in that campaign, as the images on the screen could not have presented a more stark contrast to the viewers. On the one hand you had the pale, sweaty Nixon looking as if he was still suffering from the flu he had been battling in the days leading up to the debate; on the other side you had the young, vibrant, tan Kennedy who was the vision of the optimism that Americans so often look for in a president.
Last but not least is the current occupant of the White House, President Barack Obama. Only elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004, then-Senator Obama rose quickly and unexpectedly to the 2008 Democratic nomination and then to the presidency. In fact, the 2008 election saw two sitting senators battling it out, so either way we would have one on the list in this spot (this would have still been the case even if Hillary Clinton had beaten out Mr. Obama for the nomination). We will obviously know the outcome of this election soon enough, but no matter who wins, it clearly won’t be anyone that will make it onto this exclusive list. We will have to wait another four years to see if anyone else rises from the ranks of Congress to take their place in history.
Do you have any ideas about who might be the next sitting member of Congress to get either party’s nomination or to actually win the presidency? Lots can happen in four years and various stars can rise and fall with the tide that is the American electorate, so it will be interesting to see how things play out in that regard.
Stay tuned for more election-related history in our upcoming posts as we close in on November 6th!