Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Friday, January 11, 2008

Does Experience Lead To Presidential Greatness?

In every presidential election cycle, much is made about the "experience" that candidates bring (or do not bring) to the table in order to sway voters. This is especially true during our current election campaign. For the first time in many decades, neither a current U.S. president nor a current U.S. vice-president is running for election to the nation's highest office.

In our current cycle, Hillary Clinton touts her experience as a "doer" in Washington and claims that she had many influences in the Clinton White House. John McCain reminds voters that he is strong in foreign policy experience. And Barack Obama is almost daily compared to Abraham Lincoln because of Obama's same lack of experience in Washington which Lincoln lacked, the implication being that limited experience is good.

Just how much should experience count in the country's decision for president? When Abraham Lincoln ran for President of the United States, his total political experience was limited to a single term in the U.S. Congress, and a handful of terms in the state legislature in Illinois. (for a more detailed recounting of his political experience, click here). He ran for U.S. Senate and was defeated. He was involved in failed businesses (although their failures were not his fault). He was a successful lawyer, but there was nothing in his background to suggest to the nation's electorate that he would go on to become such a towering figure in American history.

Other men who served as U.S. President brought enormous political experience to the White House, but were considered to be ineffective at best during their term or terms in office. A classic example is John Quincy Adams. JQA was by all accounts brilliant. He served as Secretary of State, as foreign minister (ambassador) to Russia and to other countries in Europe. Yet from the beginning of his term in office (after being elected by the House of Representatives), his presidency was a failure. Congress ignored his initiatives, supporters of Andrew Jackson were furious that Adams was chosen by the House over their candidate, and government was more or less paralyzed for four years.

Today's issue of the Albany (New York) Times Union newspaper contains a well-written editorial which addresses this very topic. It starts off talking about a man who was poorly dressed, awkward in appearance, and who had a nearly total lack of political or leadership experience. The man was of course Lincoln. It also describes how John F. Kennedy brought almost no experience to the White House as well, but how his strong and determined leadership forced the Soviet Union to remove its Cuban Missiles. Kennedy also established the Peace Corps, a true example of the good which America can do. It also tells the story of Harry Truman, a former haberdasher, and selected for office by a corrupt political machine. He had no experience, yet was selected to be Vice-President and then ascended to the presidency when Franklin Roosevelt died. Truman showed a refreshing honesty and strength of leadership during his presidency. Today, many historians consider Truman to be one of the "near-great" presidents.

I agree with the conclusion of the editorial: experience (or lack thereof) does not mean everything when we select a president. As the editorial states: "...experience is in the final analysis no substitute for vision and character."

What do you think? Feel free to add your comments.


Anonymous said...

There is a grain of element of truth to that. But these folks who are presented as inexperienced or outsiders really do have some sort of connection. True, Truman ran a clothing store but he was a very influential Senator who headed an important committee in WWII. Lincoln as well, while having a very poor background, was a leading figure in the Republican party. Growing from a regional figure to national almost overnight. His success as a lawyer introduced him to many of the players during the period. JFK may be one who really had litle experience. Nothing from him as a Senator, no other experience except leadership in war (and there is some discussion as to the truth in that) But he was the first "visual" president. It does almost seem that the more experience one has, the more difficulty with the job. Nixon, Bush I and II, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Founders of our country purposefully did not include an "experience" requirement in the US Constitution for the office of the President. Although experience is one of many factors to consider, it should never be determinative of whether a candidate can serve as a successful president.
That having been said, GoBama has more than enough of the experience I want in my president. It is a fallacy to assert that GoBama lacks the requisite experience.

Jay Kane said...

I think experience is something one should consider when voting, but it doesn't tell how good a president someone will make. True, there are good points in presidents without much experience who did poorly, but what about people like Ulysses Grant? Grant was probably the worst Gilded Age president, and he had no real political experience.

On the other side of the ticket, there are people with experience who did well. I'm sure you can come up with many examples on your own for that.

Too much circumstance factors into how good a president is. Experience may give us an idea how they could do in some situations, but lack of experience doesn't say they'll do poorly. In fact, it tells us nothing. It is, by definition, a lack of criteria on which to judge someone. Neither good nor bad.

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