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Can Hillary Clinton Break the 'Presidential Cabinet Curse'?

09/02/2013 11:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2013

Less than a year after the 2012 presidential election, supporters of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are busy laying the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign for 2016. Currently, Hillary is the preponderant frontrunner to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. Many are interested to see if she can break the glass ceiling to emerge as the first female president. Should Hillary win the presidency, she will become the first former or current member of a presidential Cabinet since Republican U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover in 1928 to win the presidency.

Americans seem to have an aversion to electing Cabinet secretaries to the presidency. However, this was not always the case. In fact, the position of U.S. secretary of state was once a customary stepping-stone to the presidency, even more so than the position of vice president. Five of the nation's first eight presidents were former secretaries of state. The only other secretary of state to be elected president was James Buchanan in 1856. Since Buchanan, no other Democrat who served in a presidential Cabinet has gone on to capture the presidency.

It is often the case that when the president is a lame duck, the vice president begins running for his party's presidential nomination. He usually has the support, overt or covert, of the president. It would be seen as improper and impolitic for a sitting cabinet member to run against the vice president.

When the opposing party is in power and primaries begin, it is not uncommon for a former cabinet official to seek the nomination. However, they are often seen as a voice from the past, and gain little traction. Unlike Hillary Clinton, these former Cabinet secretaries usually have little national political experience, and their programmatic dialect can be off-putting politically.

In 1876, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant did not seek a third term. There was no vice president, as Henry Wilson had died a year earlier. Consequently, a cavalcade of Republicans sought the GOP nomination. One such presidential aspirant was U.S. Treasury Secretary Benjamin H. Bristow. However, Bristow became persona non grata with the Republican establishment for his assiduous prosecution of the Whiskey Ring (a scheme where Republican officials, including members of the administration of Republican Ulysses S. Grant, were pocketing kickbacks from whisky distillers in return for helping them evade taxes). Bristow tried to use his prosecution of the Whisky Ring to his electoral advantage by running as a good government-minded reformer. Despite these efforts, Bristow lost the nomination to Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes.

In 1880, John Sherman, another U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, sought the GOP nomination. Sherman was one of three GOP Heavyweights to seek the GOP nomination. The Convention became deadlocked between former President Grant and former U.S. House Speaker James G. Blaine (R-ME). U.S. Representative James Garfield gave an electrifying address in support of his fellow Ohioan, Sherman. Ironically Convention delegates began a chorus of: "We want Garfield." The deadlock was broken when Sherman and Blaine agreed to support Garfield. Garfield won the Presidency on the 36th ballot.

Since Buchanan, the closest a former Democratic Cabinet member has come to mustering his party's nomination was former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo. McAdoo was the frontrunner. However, he failed to garner the coveted endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson, even though McAdoo was Wilson's son-in-law. Wilson remained a neutral party in the hope that the party would draft "him" for a third term. Like Sherman in 1880, a deadlocked Convention nominated a dark horse from Ohio, Governor James Cox.

Still viewed favorably by the Democratic Party, McAdoo again sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924. McAdoo received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. His chief opponent, New York Governor Al Smith, was a Ku Klux Klan opponent. The Convention was deadlocked again. Finally, in the name of party unity, both candidates dropped out of the race. A dark horse, John W. Davis, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, secured the Democratic presidential nomination.

While McAdoo never received the brass ring in politics, he proved a hit with younger ladies. At age 50, he married Wilson's Daughter, Eleanor, who was just 24 years old. After the two divorced, the 71-year-old McAdoo married his 26-year-old nurse, Doris Cross. Ironically, McAdoo was 16 years older than his new father-in-law.

More recently, the two former Cabinet members to come closest to winning their party's nomination were Republicans. Like Hillary, both also had experience in electoral politics.

The first Republican was former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally. He sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Connally was the first major party presidential candidate to refuse to accept federal matching funds. Connally proved a prolific fundraiser, raising $11 million. However, the money raised did not translate into votes, and Connally could not defeat the juggernaut for frontrunner Ronald Reagan. Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas was the only delegate Connally accrued.

The second Republican former Cabinet member to wage a serious campaign toward winning his party's nomination was former U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, who sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1996. Alexander focused more on his prior record as governor of Tennessee than on his more recent role as U.S. Education Secretary. In fact, Alexander supported abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and giving "parents, teachers, and communities the power to make decisions about their children's schools." Alexander hit his high watermark by finishing in third place in Iowa and third place in New Hampshire. However, his candidacy then fizzled and Alexander eventually dropped out of the race. Alexander also sought the GOP nomination again in 2000, but dropped out before a single primary was held.

Also in 1995, two former Cabinet officials who served under President George H. W. Bush flirted with a presidential run. These were former U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former U.S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin. In addition, Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, also gave serious consideration to launching a presidential bid. However, none of these three aforementioned former Cabinet Secretaries entered a single primary. In 2007, former U.S. Health and Human Services Cabinet Secretary Tommy Thompson sought the GOP presidential nomination but dropped out well before the primaries were held.

Currently, Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead for her party's presidential nomination. However, since at least the Civil War, the American electorate has not been kind to former Cabinet officials seeking the presidency. Breaking the Cabinet Curse as well as shattering the gender glass ceiling will be a redoubtable task for the former secretary of state.