Comparing the 40 individuals who have reached the presidency,one is struck less by what they have in common than by their differences.
Consider education. George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson had no formal schooling, while Harry Truman had only a public-school education. This is hardly surprising considering the few centers of higher education in the earlier days of the republic.
On the other hand, two-thirds of our presidents were college graduates or had some college education. Chester Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt were Phi Beta Kappa students; James Polk graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina; Woodrow Wilson received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and taught at Princeton. (He and Eisenhower, incidentally, were also college presidents.) Most of our presidents also studied law and many were still practicing lawyers before becoming president.
Legislative or political experience, which one would think necessary to qualify for the presidency, also was not universal. While many gained such experience serving in state legislatures and many were governors or congressmen, military men like Zachary Taylor, Grant or Eisenhower had no previous political or legislative careers. This was also true of Herbert Hoover, who served as food administrator during the first World War and occupied a Cabinet post as Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, but otherwise had no political exposure.
Lincoln's rise from a poor boy born in a log cabin is well known, and other presidents such as Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan and James A. Garfield also were from log-cabin boyhoods. Two of our presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, came from backgrounds of great wealth.
Most of our presidents had some military experience; Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield and Eisenhower all attained the rank of general.
Our only bachelor president was James Buchanan.
Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy were victims of assassination. Three others (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Warren Harding) died in office.
Presidents also represented all major political parties. Washington and John Adams were Federalists. The Democratic party traces its roots to Jefferson. William Henry Harrison was the first of the Whigs, a term originally designating ''anti-Jackson.'' The first president of today's Republican Party was Lincoln, and that party since has dominated the presidency.
Until the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the political philosophies of the major parties differed mainly on the issue of tariffs, but Roosevelt introduced a ''liberal'' versus ''conservative'' bias which dominates political thinking of today.
Although there have been no women candidates for the presidency on major-party tickets, Geraldine Ferraro ran unsuccessfully for vice-president on the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale in 1984. And two women ran for the presidency on the ''Equal Rights'' ticket: Victoria Woodhull (also the first woman stockbroker) in 1892 and Belva Lockwood (a teacher and lawyer) in 1884.
Gerson G. Eisenberg writes from Baltimore.