The Folly of Experience
by Stanley Kutler
www.truthdig.com March 7, 2008
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
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
Democracy in America