What Experience?

Some form of this essay (sans list at end) will be appearing in the January 31st issue of Cedars. I’m told there’s another pro-Obama piece in this issue as well.


The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has essentially narrowed to two candidates: Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The latter has –- recent, bizarre attacks notwithstanding –- focused almost exclusively on Obama’s supposed lack of experience. Behind “change,” (Does Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton suggest “change” to you?) “experience” is the most over-used word of this political season so far. Obama is right, in response, to reverse the charge and question how much experience Clinton has herself: does eight years as First Lady really prepare one to be Commander in Chief?In an influential article from The New York Times in December, Patrick Healy noted that during those eight years, “Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing.” Her biggest project, healthcare reform, was an unmitigated disaster. What, then, is Clinton banking on exactly? Healy mockingly suggests it’s presidential training by “osmosis.”

There seems little doubt that Clinton has a much better idea of life in the White House than, say, you or me. But it’s difficult to see how writing Dear Socks, Dear Buddy (a book I’ve read incidentally) better enables her to lead our country than Obama’s years of working the streets of Chicago, defending the poor and standing up for the marginalized, not to mention his seven years in the Illinois state legislature. It is, the Clinton campaign seems to assert, experience in a federal office (preferably elected) that really counts – which still only gives Clinton a mere four-year advantage over Obama.

Of course, what fewer people seem to question – especially not in the mainstream media – is whether or not experience is really what we want after all. Periodically, various surveys of historians have attempted to rank our past presidents in terms of “greatness” – sometimes vague, sometimes overly biased, but useful nonetheless. An aggregate of those results is even better, and certain names inevitably crop up as our greatest presidents (And no, G.W. Bush registers as neither one of the best nor worst).

If we compare the top ten best with the ten worst (excluding the two who died within a year of taking office) in terms of federal experience, we arrive at a curious statistic. The worst, led by Warren G. Harding, have a median average of 7.5 (mean of 7.3) years of experience. The best, led by Abraham Lincoln, have a median average of just 2 (mean of 4.7) years experience. This isn’t, of course, to suggest an inverse relationship between experience and greatness, but it’s a factor to consider. It might suggest, for example, that preparedness (if that’s even truly possible for our highest office) does not really have a whole lot to do with prior political experience. James Buchanan, our 2nd worst president, had a stunning 27 years experience spread across four distinct & distinguished roles. Three of our greatest – George Washington (#3), Woodrow Wilson (#6), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (#9) – had absolutely zero prior experience, at least in the sense we’re using “experience” here.

Senator Obama’s three years in the US Senate don’t look so insignificant anymore. He’s been there longer, for example, than another eloquent lawyer from Illinois known as a visionary leader and gifted orator: Abraham Lincoln. Comparisons to Lincoln, naturally, should be heavily qualified. It is simply worth noting, however, that after eight years of one of the most highly “qualified” (see: Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney) and yet disastrous administrations, it just might be time to see what the Junior Senator from Illinois can bring to the table. It may just be his ability to lead effectively – to cast and communicate vision, to delegate and deliberate, to creatively re-think the status quo – that best qualifies Senator Barack Obama as the far-and-away greatest choice for Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America.

10 Greatest US Presidents – and their years of experience
1. Abraham Lincoln – 2 years (Illinois congressman)
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt – 2 years (New York senator)
3. George Washington – 0
4. Thomas Jefferson – 12 years (Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President)
5. Theodore Roosevelt – 6 months (Vice President)
6. Woodrow Wilson – 0
7. Harry S. Truman – 11 years (Kansas senator, VPOTUS)
8. Andrew Jackson – 4 years (Tennessee congressman & senator)
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower – 0
10. James K. Polk – 15 years (Tennessee congressman)

10 Worst US Presidents – and their years of experience
1. Warren G. Harding – 6 years (Ohio senator)
2. James Buchanan – 27 years (Pennsylvania congressman & senator, Ambassador to Russia, Secretary of State)
3. Franklin Pierce – 9 years (New Hampshire congressman & senator)
4. Andrew Johnson – 5 years (Tennessee senator)
5. Ulysses S. Grant – 0
6. Millard Fillmore – 9 years (New York congressman, VPOTUS)
7. John Tyler – 14 years (Virginia congressman & senator)
8. Zachary Taylor – 0
9. Richard Nixon – 14 years (California congressman & senator, VPOTUS)
10. Calvin Coolidge – 2.5 years (VPOTUS)


Addendum: after I wrote this I read Garry Wills’ NYT essay “Two Presidents Are Worse Than One” where he correctly points out Clinton’s catch-22. If she admits the president’s spouse has a very small role to play in terms of real political involvement, then she negates 12 months of screeching about how “experienced” she is. On the other hand, if she still wants to insist the president’s spouse plays a vital, direct role in governing this nation then she has to admit that voting for her is also voting for Bill Clinton. Maybe some Americans are OK with that, but I suspect the vast majority won’t stand for that kind of shared power and a continued dynasty.
See also: “Experience is not one of Hillary Clinton’s assets” by Timothy Noah in Slate and just for kicks, “Why Hillary Clinton Should Withdraw From the Race Today.”

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