WASHINGTON — The next president is most likely to have a law degree, but hold the lawyer jokes. That might not be such a bad thing. The three leading candidates in each party have law degrees and most have practiced law. Some are weaving their legal careers into their campaign pitches, squeezed between the action verbs and take-charge rhetoric about running states, cities, businesses and the Olympics.
In a sense, it's a return to tradition. Lawyers dominated the presidency until the 20th century, when voters became enamored with the "decider" model: those who ran on their executive experience. That led to a series of governors (some with law degrees) in the White House, culminating in the CEO-style tenure of George W. Bush — a former governor and the first president with an MBA.
Yet management credentials don't ensure a well-oiled administration. Bush has been widely criticized for his handling of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and general decision-making.
Now the country appears poised to return to the lawyer-president model. Six prospective lawyer-presidents top the polls: Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.
Romney also is a former Massachusetts governor with an MBA and is betting mostly on his appeal as a CEO. Law school was "a long, long time ago," he says in an interview. More relevant, he says, are his 35 years in business and public leadership posts such as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
In the sound bite age, such credentials are an easier sell than legal skills such as analyzing things from many angles.
"Hard-charging CEO deciders are very appealing to the American electorate," says James Pfiffner, a presidential historian at George Mason University. "Saying 'I can look at all sides of the issues' is really important, but it doesn't impress voters as much."
Ditto for trying to make an exciting pitch out of "I'm a good negotiator" or "I know the Constitution."
That's before you even get to society's view of lawyers. The jokes. The stereotypes ("ambulance chasers"). The Shakespeare T-shirts ("The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"). The mistrust.
Only 18% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last December rated lawyers high or very high on honesty and ethical standards. The good news for lawyers is that those surveyed rated CEOs the same.
Twenty-five of 43 presidents have had law degrees, but the American Bar Association says the proportion has fallen from 76% through the 19th century to 39% in the 20th century. Some recent presidents have perpetuated negative views of lawyers: Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton was impeached.
But lawyer-presidents also have included Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. "When you look at the most successful presidents, many of them have been lawyers," says Paul Finkelman, a historian and legal scholar at the Albany (N.Y.) Law School.
Beating power in court
On the campaign trail, you'd hardly notice that Romney has a law degree. By contrast, Edwards' legal career is central to his populist pitch.