For the past 20 years, it was very good to be the governor of a major state indeed. National crime rates were falling and the national and global economies were booming so it was quite easy if you were a state governor to cut taxes, prune state government a bit, and still look as successful and commanding as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Pericles.
As if that wasn't enough, the increasingly dominant conservative voices commanding newspaper op-ed pages and cable TV commentary led by cheerleader in chief George Will would enthusiastically sing your praises for doing almost nothing. They even managed to make Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin look good.
This easy ride for major state governors was reflected in their success in national politics. In the past quarter of a century, four of the five presidents elected had been state governors and that was the launch pad for their national success. They were Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Bush himself from Texas. All four found it easy to make the transition from presiding over good times in their own state capitals to presiding over even better times in the entire nation.
This was not an automatic development in American politics and it was a dramatic departure from the previous era. In the 31 years from the death of Franklin Roosevelt -- a twice-elected governor of New York State before he became the only four-times-elected president of the United States -- to Carter's victory, not a single state governor ever won a major party presidential nomination, or national election or served as president. In that era, the main breeding ground for presidents was the Senate. Four out of the six presidents of that era -- Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard M. Nixon -- rose to national prominence through it.
But in the past quarter century since Carter's victory, not a single sitting or former senator has made it into the White House. The way to the White House has led through the state gubernatorial mansion instead.
Three of those four governors-turned-presidents, Reagan, Clinton and Bush, had won re-election as governor -- Clinton, several times. Two of the four --Reagan and Clinton -- won re-election as president, the only ones since Dwight D. Eisenhower to do so.
Because the times were good, the Soviet Union declining or collapsed and the nation at peace, those presidents could afford the luxury of a long and slow learning curve. None of them had ever held national office before, either in previous presidential cabinets or in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. None of them had had any experience whatsoever in administrating large organizations that stretched across the nation. That was a major reason why they were all so fluently easy and quick to criticize the "evils" of "big government." All of them as a result made embarrassing missteps in their first years in Washington. And until Sept. 11 this year, none of that mattered.
But it matters now.
The times are no longer either good or easy. The long deferred, much feared recession is finally hitting with storm force fury. The spiraling collapse in the Stock Market is at last being followed by a massive national hemorrhage of jobs. The Heartland and Southwest, the political mainsprings of the long Republican national ascendancy are hurting hard. And the nation is fearful over the new threat of mega-terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction by suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk.
Bush won the leadership of the Republican Party on the basis of his successful political record as governor of Texas. And he was borne to the GOP presidential nomination last year on the wings of enthusiastic support from his fellow GOP governors. As a result, four such governors now sit in his administration. They are Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin as Health and Social Services Secretary, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania as homeland security coordinator, former Missouri governor and senator John Ashcroft as attorney general and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Thompson and Ashcroft have repeatedly appeared overwhelmed by the anthrax mail attacks and national security and health issues they have had to deal with since Sept. 11. Ridge has not begun to get a handle on coordinating the alphabet soups of 46 different agencies he must forge into a team to effectively defend the nation. Only Whitman has escaped that general sense of miasma and fiasco, and she had already been undercut and politically neutered by Bush himself for taking her responsibilities seriously in her eight months in office before Sept. 11.
For the past quarter century, the best way to national prominence has been to play Calvin Coolidge in the gubernatorial state mansion. But in the new era of economic recession and unprecedented physical threat the nation is now entering, Senate and City Hall are going to be the places to be.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has already risen to national heroic stature in the way he rallied his city after the unprecedented terrorist attacks that killed up to 5,000 people in the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Current and former senators of both parties like Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, who have had exemplary, or even prophetic records in warning in vain about the looming likelihood of such attacks, are likely to head to the forefront of national prominence. That is likely to happen sooner rather than later if Bush and his fellow former state governors fail to master the current crisis.
The great comedian and movie director Mel Brooks once famously joked, "It's good to be king!" But today it's no longer good to be governor.