In the midst of the buzz about Hillary Clinton becoming the next Secretary of State, a little historical knowledge suggests that her appointment would be a highly unusual, though not unprecedented, one. Of the 18 (non-acting) Secretaries of State who have held office since the end of World War II, only two were chosen from the ranks of elected politicians: James F. Byrnes and Edmund Muskie. The performance of one of the two offers a cautionary tale.
To take the less relevant of the two first, Muskie served in Maine’s House of Representatives before being elected the state’s Governor in 1954. He would go on to serve as a U.S. Senator for over 20 years, and was a serious Presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie replaced Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State only after Vance resigned out of disgust with Carter’s bungled mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Muskie served in the position for only the last seven months of the administration. After leaving the State Department, Muskie acted as an elder statesman but never ran for office again.
The case of Byrnes, however, is far more suggestive of what we might expect from a Secretary Hillary. Byrnes had already been a member of the House of Representatives, a Senator, and even a Supreme Court Justice before FDR made him, in 1943, head of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, a superagency whose role was to “initiate policies, plan programs, and coordinate all federal agencies in the production, procurement, and distribution of all war materials – military and civilian.”
Reminiscent of Hillary’s stint as First Lady, his political influence and maneuvering extended so far outside of his official duties that members of Congress started calling him “assistant President.” And in another resonant similarity, he later seriously contended with, but lost to, Truman in the competition to become the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1944. Indeed, it was President Truman, taking office after FDR’s death, who appointed Byrnes as Secretary of State in June 1945. On its face, the choice made good sense insofar as Byrnes had been Truman’s main adviser on foreign policy. However, Truman would later admit that he made the appointment partly out of guilt over the vice presidential episode.
Byrnes’s time as chief diplomat turned out to be a troubled one. Feeling resentment toward Truman for having defeated him politically, Byrnes set foreign policy without informing the President in advance. (Complaining that he was learning of American policy from newspapers, Truman privately called Byrnes a “conniver.”) Byrnes was also seen as being too willing to compromise with the Soviets, and he made some major diplomatic blunders when it came to negotiating the status of Eastern European countries after the war. Ultimately, the personal and political tension between Truman and him became too great, and Byrnes resigned and left office in 1947. But any such internal difficulties didn’t hurt his subsequent political career. He would go on to be elected governor of South Carolina at the advanced age of 72.
Whatever Byrnes’s missteps as Secretary of State, he at least came to the job with a hefty amount of relevant experience. After all, he effectively ran the domestic war effort. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine anyone relying on Hillary for her foreign policy expertise.
In any case, whether or not Hillary hopes to have a political career like that of Byrnes’s (she is currently 61 years old), it is worth reflecting on whether any elected politician is likely to make a good Secretary of State, especially when the other names being floated for the position are Governor Bill Richardson and Senators John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Sam Nunn. True statesmanship, it should go without saying, requires political disinterestedness. As a Senator wisely put it many years ago:
A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.
It is of course possible that a politician might be willing permanently to leave politics behind for unselfish public service, but when a politician has shown him- or herself to be ruthlessly partisan and ambitious, and to have known little except how to climb the greasy pole, serious doubts are warranted.