12.18.08

America's Least Qualified Senators

Caroline Kennedy's resumé may not amount to much. But then neither did Hillary Clinton's. Or John Edwards'. Or Jon Corzine's, Teddy Kennedy's, and a raft of others before they reached the Senate.

In her bid to succeed Hillary Clinton as New York's junior senator, Caroline Kennedy is coming under fire for a lackluster set of qualifications. Yet despite never holding elected office, she would be in good company in the Senate, which has hosted many political novices before. Some traded on their family name, some bought their seat, and others were simply in the right place at the right time.

Bill Frist leapt from a career as a prominent heart surgeon to the Senate in 1994. Not only had he never held elected office, The New York Times reported he didn't even vote in an election until 1989.

Here are the least “qualified” senators in recent memory, based on their lack of experience in government. How does Caroline stack up against these esteemed politicians?

1. Bill Bradley (D-NJ)
Previous political experience: Errr...
Previous life experience: Olympic gold medalist, 2-time NBA champion

No one could accuse college basketball legend and New York Knicks star Bill Bradley of being a dumb jock—he played for Princeton despite having his pick of any elite NCAA program in the country and was a Rhodes scholar. His resumé was nonetheless light when he won a Senate seat only a year after retiring from the NBA. But who cares? Tri-state area voters would elect the Cookie Monster if he brought the Knicks another championship.

2. Ted Kennedy (D-MA)
Previous political experience: Helped run John Kennedy's 1960 campaign.
Previous life experience: Sprang from Kennedy family womb, graduated from law school

You can hardly blame Ted Kennedy for promoting his niece's Senate bid. After all, he had even less experience when he took over his brother Jack's seat in 1962 when he was just three years out of law school. He would have taken the seat sooner, but he was too young to be constitutionally eligible, leaving Benjamin A. Smith II to warm the seat after JFK vacated it for the White House.

3. James Buckley (Conservative-NY)
Previous political experience: Failed senate bid
Previous life experience: Vice president of father's company

The older brother of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., James Buckley emerged the winner of a freak 1970 race in which Democrat Richard Ottinger and Republican Charles Goodell split the vote, leaving him to eke out a victory with 38 percent of the vote on the third-party Conservative ticket. The lightly qualified Buckley lasted one term before the universe corrected itself and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan defeated him.

4. Bill Frist (R-TN)
Previous political experience: Helped run George Bush Sr.'s 1992 campaign in Tennessee
Previous life experience: Heart transplant pioneer

Bill Frist leapt from a career as a prominent heart surgeon to the Senate in 1994. Not only had he never held elected office, The New York Times reported he didn't even vote in an election until 1989. He was the only medical doctor in the Senate during his time in Washington, D.C.

5. John Edwards (D-NC)
Previous political experience: Diddly, squat
Previous life experience: Successful trial lawyer

Before he was a presidential candidate, vice presidential nominee, presidential candidate again, and finally tabloid fodder, Edwards rose to prominence as a trial lawyer, a qualification often sneered at by political opponents. Edwards's pre-Senate career proved a great political advantage, securing him a steady stream of funds from the legal community throughout his career.

6. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Previous political experience: Nil
Previous life experience: Private attorney

Back in 1976, when Caroline Kennedy was a freshman at Radcliffe, and Hillary and Bill were newlyweds, 43-year old Utah attorney Orrin Hatch upset a three-term incumbent, Frank Moss, to kick off his 32-years-and-counting Senate career.

7. Jon Corzine (D-NJ)
Previous political experience: Chaired a presidential budget commission under Bill Clinton
Previous life experience: CEO of Goldman Sachs

An MBA who earned hundreds of millions at Goldman Sachs, Corzine dropped an eye-popping $62.7 million on the way to defeating former Gov. Jim Florio in the Democratic primary and Rep. Bob Franks in the general election. Only New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg can rival Corzine when it comes to buying elections.

8. Herb Kohl (D-WI)
Previous political experience: Was once chair of the Wisconsin Democratic
Party Previous life experience: Inherited supermarket chain, ran sports franchise

Having amassed a fortune from his family supermarket chain, Kohl purchased the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985, thus combining his wealth with another of the most prominent shortcuts to political office: professional sports experience. Kohl burned through more than $4 million of his own cash to defeat Republican State Sen. Susan Engeleiter in 1988.

9. Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Previous political experience: Falsely rumored to be Bob Woodard's "Deep Throat" while doing PR work for federal government
Previous life experience: Public relations consultant, businessman, political/religious royalty

The son of a senator and the grandson of a former president of the Mormon church, Bennett worked as a public relations consultant and CEO before running for Senate in 1992, overcoming a weak resumé with his strong family name.

10. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
Previous political experience: First Lady
Previous life experience: successful private attorney in Arkansas, founded non-profit children's advocacy organization

Hillary had amassed an impressive resumé as a lawyer and brought an activist approach to her position as First Lady, but she still had not held elected office on her own before parachuting into New York, a state she had never lived in, to defeat Rick Lazio in 2000.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.