Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Three Political Prodigy Governors of the 20th Century

Jul 19, 2020

The Three Political Prodigy Governors of the 20th Century

tags: Bill Clinton,presidential history,governors

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.



Three 20th century state governors came to office in their early 30s with Presidential ambitions and potential, but two of them faded fast after dramatic early years in public office.  Both Republican Philip LaFollette of Wisconsin (1931-1933, 1935-1939) and Republican Harold Stassen of Minnesota (1939-1943) made a lot of news in their short, meteoric careers as major public figures. The third, Democrat Bill Clinton (1979-1981, 1983-1992), stumbled on his way to a presidential campaign but ended up having a massive impact on the American people in a presidency portrayed in intensely positive and negative terms.  His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, became a major figure as First Lady, then as Senator from New York and Secretary of State in the first term of President Barack Obama.

Philip LaFollette was the younger son of “Fighting Bob,” Wisconsin Governor, Senator, and 1924 Progressive Party Presidential nominee Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., who was acknowledged by historians as one of the greatest state governors and US Senators of all time. Philip LaFollette was also the brother of Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., who was one of the major progressive figures in the tradition of his father, and an influential figure during the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His significance and that of his brother Philip is described and fully developed in my monograph, Twilight of Progressivism: The Western Republican Senators and the New Deal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Philip LaFollette was the youngest governor elected in modern times.  He was about 33 years and 8 months old, and he followed the tradition of Wisconsin progressivism that had been established by his father thirty years earlier.  He was much more outspoken and assertive than his brother, but when their father died in 1925, Philip was only 28, while “Young Bob” had reached the minimum age of 30, so the latter ran for his father’s Senate seat, while Philip was already serving as District Attorney of Dane County (which included Madison, the state capital) from 1925-1927.

Philip LaFollette was, surprisingly, defeated for reelection after his first two year term which ended in 1933, but came back and won the Wisconsin Governorship a second and third time (1935-1939), forming the Wisconsin Progressive Party as his political vehicle, and the LaFollette brothers were at their peak at the height of the New Deal.  But the rivalry between the brothers, the much quieter Bob and the more assertive Phil, led to growing opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and particularly to criticism of any move to abandon the isolationist mentality that gripped much of the nation and the Congress in the late 1930s.  

The threat of Germany and Japan grew to cause a major split between the President and the LaFollette brothers.  Phil decided to form a third party movement, the National Progressive Party of America, and had plans to run for President in 1940, as he assumed FDR would not run for a third term.  But the third party effort failed to get off the ground, and he lost massively to his opponent in the gubernatorial race, 55 to 36 percent in 1938. He never sought political office again, and his involvement with his brother in the America First crusade in 1940-1941 undermined his public reputation.   

Phil LaFollette did serve in World War II under General Douglas MacArthur, however, and promoted the lost candidacy of MacArthur in the Republican Presidential nomination battle in 1948.  His brother would manage to keep his seat in 1940, but would then lose in the Republican primary in 1946 to future Senator Joseph McCarthy, accused not being a true Republican having kept the Progressive tag even after the failed third party movement in 1938.  Phil engaged in private business in later years, wrote his autobiography, and died at age 68 in 1965.  His widow, Isabel, lived on to 1973, and was interviewed by this author in Madison, Wisconsin, while he was doing research on his book on Progressive Republican Senators in the summer of 1970.

Harold Stassen was elected Governor of Minnesota at the youngest age in modern American history, being only 31 years and about 9 months old, when taking office in 1939.  He had been a child prodigy, graduating high school at age 15, and gained his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota at age 20, and that university’s law school degree at age 22.  He was elected District Attorney of Dakota County, part of the Minneapolis-St, Paul metropolitan area, taking office in 1931, while still age 23, and was reelected in 1934.  He became active in state Republican politics, and announced his plans to run for Governor in 1938.

Becoming known as the “Boy Governor”, he became extremely popular during 1939, and some saw him as a potential Presidential candidate, although he was not old enough in 1940. He had high public opinion ratings even from non-Republicans, who saw him as a future nominee.  He gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention when he was only 33 years old. After being reelected to second and third two-year terms in 1940 and 1942, he resigned early in his third term to report for active duty in the US Navy in the Spring of 1943, and served under Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Stassen was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service as Commander in that position.  He was promoted to the rank of Captain in September 1945, and released from active duty in November 1945 after two and a half years of service.

No one looking at Stassen’s meteoric rise would have thought that he would never again hold elective office while pursuing perennial failed presidential campaigns. Over time he became a national joke and embarrassment.  He ran for President nine times---1944, 1948, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1980. 1984, 1988, and 1992.  His only serious effort was in 1948, when he won some early primaries over New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the eventual nominee, and participated in a political debate the night before the Oregon Primary, the first such debate in modern times between contending Presidential candidates.  But he was third in delegates in early ballots at the Republican National Convention, and withdrew after the second ballot.  

In 1952, the Minnesota delegation abandoned Stassen and backed Dwight D. Eisenhower, who went on to defeat Ohio Senator Robert Taft for the nomination.  Stassen worked in the Eisenhower administration as Director of the Mutual Security Agency from January to August 1953, and as Director of the US Foreign Operations Administration from August 1953 to March 1955.  He also served as President of the University of Pennsylvania from 1948-1953 before his service for President Eisenhower.

Stassen also ran for Governor of Minnesota in 1982, Governor of Pennsylvania in 1958 and 1966, US Senate in Minnesota in 1978 and 1994, Mayor of Philadelphia in 1959, and US Representative in Minnesota in 1986.  Stassen was always perceived as a liberal Republican, a liberal Baptist who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March on Washington in August 1963.  He spoke up against an embargo on Cuba, and against the Vietnam War escalation, and participated as a delegate in the founding of the United Nations in 1945. He supported that institution throughout his long life, until passing away at the age of 93 in 2001.   

Bill Clinton, the only “Boy Governor” to become president, was elected Arkansas Governor at age 32, older than Stassen, but younger than Philip LaFollette.  Clinton first ran for public office at age 28, losing by 52-48 to an incumbent Republican Congressman, but then was elected Arkansas Attorney General at age 30 in 1976, and Governor in 1978.  He would lose his Governorship two years later, just as Philip LaFollette did, but came back in 1982 to the position, keeping it for the next ten years and serving a total of three two year and two four year terms, with the last term cut short by his election to the presidency.  

Clinton was a “New Democrat”, more centrist and moderate than Democrats in the 1980s, and he was not originally seen as a serious Presidential contender, particularly after his long winded nomination speech for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, which led to cheers when he finished.  But in a stroke of luck, including better known Democrats choosing not to run, he overcame an early loss in the New Hampshire primary and private scandals, emerged as the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1992, and was elected over President George H. W. Bush and Independent H. Ross Perot, with only 43 percent of the total national vote. Therefore he became our third youngest president at inauguration at age 46 and five months, with only Theodore Roosevelt (42) and John F. Kennedy (43) being younger when taking the oath. 

Clinton would go on to have a very controversial presidency in many respects, and face impeachment during his second term for his private life scandals, but would overcome it and finish his two terms of office with a very high public opinion rating, rare for a president leaving office.  The assessment of his presidency has put him in the top third of all Presidents, most recently being rated number 15 in the C-Span Historians Poll of 2017.  

His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, would be equally controversial, going on to lose the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 to Barack Obama, become the nominee of her party in 2016, and lose in the Electoral College to Donald Trump despite a nearly 3 million popular vote victory. The Clintons have been a major part of the American political scene on the national level now for three decades, and assessments of both Bill and Hillary Clinton remain a controversial topic in the new decade of the 2020s.

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