Thursday, February 28, 2008

Does Experience Matter in a President? 

From today's Time magazine:



A story is often told at times like this - times when American voters are choosing among candidates richly seasoned with political experience and those who are less experienced but perhaps more exciting alternatives. Once upon a time, the torch was passed to a new generation of Americans, and a charismatic young President, gifted as a speechmaker but little tested as an executive, was finding his way through his first 100 days. On Day 85, he stumbled, and the result for John F. Kennedy was the disastrous Bay of Pigs.

For scholars of the presidency, Kennedy's failure to scuttle or fix the ill-conceived invasion of Cuba is a classic case of the insufficiency of charisma alone. No quips, grins or flights of rhetoric would do. Kennedy needed on-the-job training, as he later admitted to a friend: "Presumably, I was going to learn these lessons sometime, and maybe better sooner than later." Unfortunately, when a President gets an education, we all pay the tuition.

Barack Obama basks in comparisons to J.F.K., but this is one he'd rather avoid. In the run-up to what could be the decisive contests for the Democratic nomination, Obama's relatively light political rÉsumÉ - eight years as an Illinois legislator and three years in the U.S. Senate - continues to be the focus of his rivals' attacks. Hillary Clinton advertises her seven years in the Senate and two terms as First Lady, saying "I am ready to lead on Day One." And the message has gotten through: by clear margins, voters rate her as the more experienced of the two candidates. The fact that this hasn't stopped Obama's momentum doesn't mean he's heard the last of it - not with John McCain, who has spent 26 years on Capitol Hill, the likely Republican nominee. "I'm not the youngest candidate. But I am the most experienced," says McCain. "I know how the world works."

Obama's credentials would be an issue in any election year. He would be sworn in at age 47, making him one of the youngest Presidents in history, and would arrive in the Oval Office with less executive experience than most of his predecessors. Depending on what your leanings are, you could compare his work history - lawyer, state legislator, Washington short-timer, orator - to Abraham Lincoln's, or to a thousand forgotten figures in politicalgraveyard.com. The question of experience takes on added bite this year, though, because the next President will inherit a troubled and menacing satchel of problems. From the Iraq tightrope to the stumbling economy, from the China challenge to the health-care mess, from loose nukes to oil dependence to (some things never change) Cuba policy - the next President will be tossed a couple dozen flaming torches at the end of the inaugural parade, and it would be helpful to know that this person has juggled before.

But if one moral of the Bay of Pigs is "Beware of charisma" or "Timeworn trumps callow," what do we make of the mistakes and miscalculations of deeply experienced leaders? Franklin D. Roosevelt's failed court-packing scheme, for example, or Woodrow Wilson's postwar foreign policy? For that matter, Kennedy would not have faced such a harsh early tutorial if the venerable warrior and statesman Dwight D. Eisenhower had not allowed the Cuba-invasion plan to be put in motion during the last of his eight years as President.

Wouldn't it be nice if time on the job and tickets punched translated neatly into superior performance? Then finding great Presidents would be a simple matter of weighing rÉsumÉs. Take a Democrat like Bill Richardson - experienced in Congress, in the Cabinet, as a diplomat and governor - and have him run against Republican Tom Ridge, a former soldier, governor and Director of Homeland Security, with the winner chosen by a blue-ribbon commission of all-purpose elders. The Danforth-Mitchell commission, perhaps, or O'Connor-Albright. But it has never worked that way, which is why Lincoln's statue occupies a marble temple on the Mall in Washington, while his far more experienced rival William Seward has a little seat on a pedestal in New York City. "Experience never exists in isolation; it is always a factor that coexists with temperament, training, background, spiritual outlook and a host of other factors," says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "Character is your magic word, it seems to me - not just what they've done but how they've done it and what they've learned from doing it."

There's something egglike about the concept of experience as a qualification for the highest office. At first blush, the idea appears to be something you can get your hands around. Presidential experience means a familiarity with the levers and dials of government, knowing how to cajole the Congress, understanding when to rely on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and when to call on the National Security Council - that sort of thing. But bear down even slightly, and the notion of experience is liable to crack and run all over. If knowing the system is so useful, then second-term presidencies should be more successful than first-term. Instead, many Presidents lose effectiveness as they go along. Lyndon Johnson, for example: his experience as a master legislator no doubt helped as he steered his historic civil rights and welfare agenda to passage. By the end of two years as President, however, "he was out of gas," recalls Johnson aide Harry McPherson. The longer Johnson was in the Oval Office, the more feckless his presidency became.

Was it Franklin Roosevelt's experience as governor of New York that gave him the power to inspire in some of the nation's darkest hours? Or was that gift a distillate of his dauntless battle with polio? To a keen student of human nature, all of life offers lessons in how to lead, inspire and endure. Lincoln's ability to apply useful lessons from his motley experiences was among his most striking traits. When Ulysses Grant explained his grand strategy to defeat Lee by attacking on multiple fronts, Lincoln immediately thought of a lesson in joint operations learned years earlier on the farm. "Those not skinning can hold a leg," he said approvingly. For other temperaments, no amount of schooling, no matter how specific, will do. Richard Nixon served as a Congressman, Senator and Vice President; he watched from the front row as Eisenhower assembled one of the best-organized administrations in history. When Nixon's turn came, though, his core character - insecure, insincere, conspiratorial - led him to create a White House doomed by its own dysfunction.

Experience, in other words, gets its value from the person who has it. In certain lives, a little goes a long way. Some people grow and ripen through years of government service; others spoil on the vine. At the same time, the value that voters place on rÉsumÉ is constantly shifting. James A. Baker III is an authority on this. In 1980, he managed the campaign of his well-credentialed friend George H.W. Bush, under the slogan "A President we won't have to train." But the public mood was sour on Washington, and victory went to an outsider, Ronald Reagan, who had never served in Washington. Eight years later, the mood was stay the course, and Bush's experience as Vice President was his ticket to victory. Then the atmosphere turned again, and in 1992 the public demanded someone new. Baker, a former Secretary of State, still believes that a candidate with credentials should certainly tout them, but in the end, "there's no such thing as presidential experience outside of the office itself." The quality we ought to seek "is leadership."

Countless words have been devoted to the presidency, and still its dimensions remain indescribable. Two words that recur poignantly are power and loneliness. Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta recalls a moment in 1994 that for him expresses the intersection of these burdens and the essence of the office. Bill Clinton had called for a military dictator in Haiti to step down, and the crisis had ratcheted up to the point where "the ships were moving, the Navy SEALs were on alert." Some of the most experienced statesmen in Washington "were all standing around the desk saying to Clinton, 'You've got to make a decision.'" (After Clinton ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to start flying toward Haiti, the dictator backed down.) A President can take counsel from the most eminent advisers in the world, but in the end, only the President can make the fateful decisions. Some decisions are too hard or too weighty to be made at a lower level. "It's about that moment," Panetta says - that decisive moment.

When Americans pass over the best-credentialed candidates because their heart or their gut leads them elsewhere, they are only reflecting a visceral understanding that the presidency involves tests unlike all others. They are, perhaps, seeking the ineffable quality the writer Katherine Anne Porter had in mind when she defined experience as "the truth that finally overtakes you." An ideal President is both ruthless and compassionate, visionary and pragmatic, cunning and honest, patient and bold, combining the eloquence of a psalmist with the timing of a jungle cat. Not exactly the sort of data you can find on a resume.

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