Is the first lawyer-president since Ford...

BILL CLINTON

July 07, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

BILL CLINTON is the first lawyer-president since Ford. Bushand Carter were businessmen and Reagan was an actor.

Nixon was a lawyer, but prior to him you have to go back to FDR to find a lawyer-president. Johnson was a teacher turned bureaucrat, Kennedy a journalist, Ike a general, Truman a farmer turned haberdasher turned government official. So only three of the last 10 presidents were lawyers.

This is unusual, since 24 of the first 31 presidents (through FDR) were lawyers.

Of course, in a real sense it is wrong to call Bill Clinton a lawyer-president. He is a governor-president. He practiced law exactly two years in his life, and that not really full time. Nor for that matter was Nixon a lawyer-president. He was a lawyer when he was elected in 1968, and he had practiced law for four years before he entered politics and then for eight more on a sort of part-time basis between his failed and successful presidential bids, but most of his adult life he was a full-time officeholder.

FDR worked out of a small law office before he was elected governor of New York, but he practiced more personal and political business than law. Going on back, you find that all but one of the so-called lawyer-presidents were more actively involved in some other pursuit than in lawyering in their pre-presidential careers, particularly in the years just before entering the White House.

Interestingly enough, the one man who was a full-time, long-time lawyer when he was elected president is acclaimed by historians as the best president. And in my view, he was a great president because he had been a great lawyer.

I mean Abraham Lincoln, of course. Except for two years in Congress, he was a full-time lawyer from 1836 till he was elected president in 1860. He was a state legislator for eight of those years, but that was very much a part-time, non-demanding calling in those days.

Why do I say his lawyering made him a good president? Well, Lincoln, who was probably the best lawyer of his time and place, developed in his day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out dealings with judges and, particularly, juries in numerous prairie courtrooms that ability to express ideas in the style we now describe as "Lincolnian":

Simple, concise, interest, eloquent and convincing.

One biographer has suggested that the way to think of Lincoln as a lawyer-president is to consider the American people during his presidency as a jury that was convinced by his arguments to stay the very difficult course of the Civil War.

Another way, which I prefer, is to look at his conduct of the presidency as if he considered the American people his client; and he was willing to give the last full measure of his devotion to winning his client's case.

Wow! Three pro-lawyer columns in two weeks (6/23 on Joseph Welch; 7/4 on Thomas Jefferson)! That's not like me.

Monday: I bash lawyers.

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