Should that matter? Asking the question seems preposterous, but similar descriptions could be offered for John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover and Richard M. Nixon. This sort of political figure — overachievers when young, underachievers when inaugurated — sometimes makes for political disasters. That may not be good news for Clinton.
There are exceptions: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush. And some of those who were underestimated as candidates (James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan) turned out to be estimable presidents. Maybe that’s good news for Biden.
Then there is the phenomenon of the soaring comet, the candidate coming out of nowhere but surely going somewhere. Jimmy Carter and Obama are not encouraging precedents for Cruz, Paul and Rubio (and you can add Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to this list).
Intellectuals in office? Supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts almost certainly know that Woodrow Wilson’s record as president has been debated furiously for a century, with A. Scott Berg weighing in with a luminous new biography this fall — maybe the best nonfiction book of 2013 — that rekindles the fight.
So forget the notion that there is a formula for presidential success. For every Theodore Roosevelt (accidental president who became a formidable president) there is a Martin Van Buren (highly experienced as secretary of state and vice president but who failed to be re-elected).
For all the talk in the capital about big issues — big expenditures, big entitlements, most of all big political stakes — there is depressingly little talk about the big questions.
Instead, the political class is preoccupied with particulars, most of which will be forgotten by the time the new president is inaugurated in January 2017. The talk is of how radioactive is Cruz, or alternatively how attractive he is. Of whether and how Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana maneuvers himself back into the conversation after describing the Republicans as “the stupid party.” About how Hillary and Bill Clinton have established a powerhouse fundraising machine.
None of that will rate even a sentence in any legitimate history of 2016. Then again, all the questions that haven’t been addressed all century will be omitted as well.
We worry in this country about sins of commission. It’s the sins of omission that are burying us.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.