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.
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.
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.