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Does Experience Really Help?

by John H. Barnhill on Sep 11, 2008

Why? How many people really have presidential experience? Only Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter. That's a pretty small group. Two have used up their two-term constitutional limit as presidents while the other two were rejected by the American electorate based on their unsatisfactory presidencies. Those two are eligible for another term, but neither is likely to run again. So relevant "experience" is hard to come by.This presidential season, everybody is talking about "experience." John McCain's decades as a senator have apparently given him foreign policy "experience," but Joe Biden's similar decades have merely made him merely a "Washington insider" apparently (although he too is a senator) without "experience." Barack Obama lacks "experience" because he's a single termer and his prior "experience" is at the state and local level. Sarah Palin has "experience" because she's a single termer with prior "experience" at the state and local level. Everybody, it seems, is wasting the onset of football season by talking about "experience."

How about related experience? Military leadership perhaps? Or some sort of administrative background? Dwight Eisenhower had both types of related "experience" — leading the recapture of Europe during World War II and running Columbia University, but that didn't keep him from mishandling foreign affairs by encouraging, then abandoning, the Hungarian revolution against communism in 1956, failing to stop Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witchhunt and getting caught lying about the true intent of American spying incursions into the Soviet Union after that nation's capture of Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U.S. U-2 spy plane. Ike's experience didn't translate into unqualified successes.

Lyndon Johnson had decades of experience in administration and politics, but his New Deal, Cold War background became a set of blinders that kept him from recognizing that he could not afford to fight two wars, on poverty and in Vietnam, simultaneously.

If we are to spend the next two months debating "experience," we should take a look back at the nation's arguably favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. As a one-term backbench congressman, Lincoln had less relevant experience than Obama or Palin. Lack of experience didn't keep him from extraordinary leadership and successes. As president, he freed the slaves, saved the union, and kept the Confederacy unrecognized and unaided by England and Europe.

Lincoln, Johnson and Eisenhower were all veterans. Only Eisenhower was a general. He wasn't the first general turned president. George Washington has that distinction. But being a general is no guarantee of great leadership. The track record of generals become president pretty much washes out military "experience" as beneficial to the would-be office holder. Zachary Taylor was a hero of the Mexican-American War whose major accomplishment as president was dying early on. William Henry Harrison, hero in the Indian wars, also died early in his presidency. Ulysses Grant presided over scandals and corruption unparalleled to that time.

The sole nineteenth-century military hero who was an effective president was Andrew Jackson, and most of his accomplishments were negative and highly controversial — defying the Supreme Court, uprooting Indians, killing the national bank.

But if military experience is no guarantee of presidential effectiveness, perhaps administrative "experience" is what matters. Still, if administrative "experience" is critical to a successful presidency, we're all in trouble. Neither of this year's presidential candidates has it, and of the two vice presidential contenders, one has none and the other has little. George W. Bush had administrative experience, but that hasn't made him a great, even an effective, president. Historians have already begun to debate whether he's the worst president of all time — beating out even James Buchanan.

So what sort of experience, if any, has worked? Who are the successful presidents, other than Lincoln? George Washington? Sure. He's the mold that all seek to fit. But he was never a governor, and his military credentials are still subject to argument. Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York but failed to fix his state's number one problem — unemployment and economic failure during the Great Depression. Harry Truman was a successful if unpopular president although his "experience" included being a junior officer in World War I, a failed small businessman, and a machine politician.

What experience did Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Truman share? What might their examples bring to the current more-heat-than-light back-and-forth about who is and isn't "experienced"? Their careers, their lives, their philosophies differed more from each other than Obama's does from McCain's. Their presidential crises or challenges were equally diverse.

Washington was the first president, so he set the precedents for all future presidents. He had no "experience" to guide him. He also had to suppress the Whisky Rebellion that threatened the fragile nation he governed. Lincoln had to govern a seriously divided Union during a civil war that threatened to destroy that union. Franklin Roosevelt had the Great Depression and World War II. Truman had the easier route, merely taking over for a father figure who had not bothered to tell him about the atomic bomb and other matters and having to define the postwar world as it was unfolding on its own.

Each had his own set of problems, his own "experience," and each succeeded. But not because they had administrative or political or foreign policy expertise. When each faced an unprecedented situation, he had the experience of not knowing everything, of having to make up solutions on the spur of the moment, of having his best efforts blow up in his face. Each experienced failure. But each adapted and overcame. And what set them apart was their ability to overcome, to learn from failure and do better the next time. They adapted to change and changed America for the better. We should experience more like them.

John H. Barnhill is an independent historian in Houston and a writer for the History News Service.