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The Folly of Experience

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Posted on Mar 7, 2008
Obama and Clinton

Are they experienced? Stanley Kutler takes a critical look at the (over-)emphasis on experience in anything resembling the Oval Office before a candidate assumes the presidency.

By Stanley Kutler

Experience is the word du jour in this political season. The debate over experience cuts two ways—it is, of course, a politician’s, not a historian’s, argument.

John McCain and Hillary Clinton have used it as a major talking point in support of their own candidacies and to build a case against Barack Obama. But presidential history attaches little importance to experience; it is strikingly absent in the historical credentials of our most honored presidents. Certainly, inexperience blighted some recent presidencies, including those of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, more memorably, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 1945, shortly after Harry Truman became president following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Director of the Budget Harold Smith compiled a summary of Truman’s votes and statements on issues through the years. Truman thanked Smith and then added: “What I have said or done before I was president has no bearing on what I will say or do now.” And how did all that experience prepare Truman for the fateful news he received upon FDR’s death about the development of an atomic weapon?

The president’s experience did not spare us at two critical junctures in our history. James Buchanan, arguably our worst president, served in both the House and the Senate and had been secretary of state and minister to England—altogether a wealth of political experience. He was jokingly referred to as “the Old Public Functionary.” Yet he fiddled in Washington as the secession crisis left him paralyzed in mind and action, unable or unwilling to prevent the dissolution of the Union. Herbert Hoover came to the presidency in 1928 with the widest experience of anyone since the earliest days of the Republic, having a rich, diversified career in both government and the private sector. Those successful experiences notwithstanding, Hoover is best remembered for his failure to relieve individual suffering during the disaster of the Great Depression.

The meager experience of our most successful presidents stands in sharp contrast. Theodore Roosevelt had been New York’s police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy and a one-term governor of New York. He was vice president for all of six months. Woodrow Wilson, whose success is more problematic, served a two-year term as governor of New Jersey and seven years as president of Princeton and briefly taught at Wesleyan University, where he founded the debate team and coached football. Rather puny experience, at best.

William Howard Taft, who served the one term between TR and Wilson, had extensive, varied experience, such as serving as a local and federal appellate judge, directing the occupation of the Philippines and being secretary of war. Who remembers Taft? His one presidential term was filled with political missteps and policy disasters, resulting in the rupture of the Republican Party.


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Generals who became presidents and had experience largely only in war have a mixed record. George Washington, of course, was a great success; Andrew Jackson has his devoted followers among historians. Zachary Taylor in two short years did not make much of a mark; Ulysses S. Grant, once the object of historical derision as a president, lately has attracted revisionists who have found merit in his record. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had no prior political experience, but shrewd politicking—networking, we might say—enabled Ike to negotiate the hazards of advancement in America’s peacetime Army. His subsequent wartime commands, like Washington’s, provided the arena for his uncanny ability to lead and inspire others to follow him. That proved to be experience enough.

When Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency against Kennedy in 1960, Nixon emphasized his experience. But when reporters pressed Eisenhower for a statement on Nixon’s accomplishments, the president tartly replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” Greatly embittered, Nixon subsequently blamed Eisenhower’s lukewarm support for his narrow loss to Kennedy. Nixon desperately yearned for Eisenhower’s blessing; instead, he got shafted.

Prominent journalist Walter Lippmann famously dismissed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 as “a pleasant young man” with few qualifications. Abraham Lincoln, whose greatness is universally acknowledged, had one term in the House of Representatives. In that brief time, he notably challenged President James K. Polk to name the exact spot where Mexicans had attacked and killed Americans on American soil. Lincoln and FDR’s leadership qualities, like Washington’s, inspired the nation in perilous times: Lincoln carried the nation through the fiery trials of the Civil War and Roosevelt steered through the shoals of economic disaster. We do better to understand their character, rather than prior experience, to understand their success and greatness. Anxious to capture the elusive qualities of leadership, historians often focus on Lincoln and Roosevelt’s temperament and, above all, their willingness to experiment with new measures and then move on if they proved inadequate. They were men of a pragmatic temperament, famously unmoved by rigid ideology or the inadequate dogmas of the past, to paraphrase Lincoln. They possessed extraordinary political antennae to direct their instincts.

Experience is rather thin gruel for measuring presidential success. Alone it is no substitute for good judgment, a bold vision, an ability to articulate it and inspire a following, and a temperament and organization to translate vision into programs and policies. These are the qualities that have rewarded us, and which have divided the good from the mediocre in our presidential history.

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By cyrena, March 7, 2008 at 10:09 pm Link to this comment

It is judgment, and character, and integrity, and the willingness to listen and consider all.

Rae mentions that one gains experience from MISTAKES. I believe that to be true, but the wiser person can learn without actually MAKING THE MISTAKES THEMSELVES!! This I believe, is where Obama’s strength lies. Not that he hasn’t made any of his own or that he won’t still. Only that he’s also capable of learning from the mistakes of others.

And like PT says here, not all ‘experience’ is the kind we want to see on a resume. So, you’ve got ‘experience’ as an inmate when you were doing time for that rape/murder. Good, I hope you learned something. That isn’t however, the kind of ‘experience’ we were thinking of.

But on the Ego thing, I don’t believe that one necessarily has to have a big ego to accept the job. That’s not to say that many presidents have NOT had these big egos. But, I don’t think it was a ‘big ego’ that set Martin Luther King Jr to task when he was 27 years old, and fresh out of the Seminary.

And, while I’m not making a comparison between them per se, I would suggest that Obama has not necessarily been ego driven, as much as he’s been ‘called upon’.

I think I said it long before he said it, if things weren’t so fucked up in our country, and if there was ANYONE else willing to run who might actually get a shot at being elected, HE WOULDN’T BE RUNNING!!

Seriously, Barack didn’t just ‘ego pop’ out of a cake and say, Oh, I think I’ll run for prez. In reality, he was approached by a lot of citizens, including politicians and other with ‘clout’ and ASKED to run for the office, once it appeared that the choices weren’t gonna be much.

Should we also assume that Dennis Kucinich had a big ego in deciding to run? I think not. I think he just believes in the principles of democracy, and is as sick at heart as the rest of us are, that they being flushed into a gigantic sewer with all the rest of us.

Actually, I got the same feeling from Gravel when he first announced over a year ago. But for whatever the reason, we can never expect that something or somebody IS exactly what they appear to be, or say that they are. That’s what struck me (and I remember) from the interview that Truthdig had with Gravel. It seems like when Americans come across a genuine person, who simply wants to help, and actually has a way to do that, (and obviously not ALONE) then we just figure that they must have some ulterior personal power motives.

Yeah, I DO understand WHY people react that way, because by now, we’re all legitimately paranoid. Still, sometimes we really do cut off our own noses to spite our faces.

If we had examined Dick Bush before we allowed them to be installed, and not dismissed Al Gore as being ‘too smart’ or too passive, 99% of us would be far better off now, and facing likely extinction.

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By waxman, March 7, 2008 at 8:43 pm Link to this comment


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By drh, March 7, 2008 at 8:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Experience is just another phony distinction that Clinton dreamed up to try to compare herself to Obama. Just like preparedness to answer the red phone. Her problem is that she just doesn’t have enough support based on real issues to beat him, so she has to invent some. The sad thing is how easily people fall for BS. Critical thinking, anyone? This whole situation is infuriating and depressing.

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By Paolo, March 7, 2008 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

John McCain has tons of “experience” in supporting wars on bogus pretenses. The same goes for Hillary.

Both have a lot of “experience” bankrupting the US economy through drunken-sailor spending.

Both have “experience” in ignoring the will of the voters and taxpayers, audaciously continuing the unnecessary occupation of a country on the far side of the globe.

Both have “experience” overseeing a military that stations personnel in three-fourths of all the countries on the planet.

I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in someone with this type of “experience.”

If some middle-level manager ran for CEO of your company, and had a long resume of running companies into the ground, would you hire him because he had a lot of “experience?”

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By Maani, March 7, 2008 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment


Bravo!  I have been thinking alot about this recently: i.e., who on God’s great earth would WANT to be president - particularly following someone like Bush who has SO screwed up EVERYTHING that it will take the next president’s first full term just to deal with the mess, much less try to get new things into the pipeline, much less accomplished.

You say, “I can’t even comprehend the EGO that drives those who want to be President of the United States.”  Even though I don’t know who (if anyone) you are supporting, I would say that the import of this statement is that it is true for ANYONE, in this case be it Hillary OR Obama.  Sure, they both may have good intentions of wanting to help people and effect “change.”  But to suggest that one or the other is NOT ego-driven to a large degree would be disingenuous, if not naive.


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By RAE, March 7, 2008 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment

Experience & wisdom are gained primarily from MAKING MISTAKES! When you, by luck or good management, haven’t made very many, then you’ve either not been trying to achieve anything worthwhile, or you’ve learned to listen to and be guided by those around you who have made the mistakes and EARNED the experience from which you are smart enough to benefit.

I don’t believe there really is any “experience” that can prepare you for the absolutely staggering amount of BULLSHIT pitches that are going to be lobbed at you while sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.

I wouldn’t take the job if the alternative was to be homeless, living on food stamps. I can’t even comprehend the EGO that drives those who want to be President of the United States.

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By P. T., March 7, 2008 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment

I think judgment is more important than experience.  And authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq and Iran if he so choosed was very poor judgment on the part of Clinton and McCain.  I just don’t trust their judgment.

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