One of the constant political mantras coming out of Campaign 2008 is the claim by various presidential candidates that they represent "experience." It's a refrain emanating from the Clinton, Biden, McCain, and Giuliani camps, in particular, and it really amounts to code language. What those continually repeating that they represent experience are really saying is the following: In a world beset by terrorism and filled with unspecified threats to you and yours, only I am knowledgeable enough to protect you.
This experience iteration is a subtle reformulation of the fear mongering used to great effect by the Bush forces in 2002 and 2004. In those election years, the argument, rarely stated but always implied, was that citizens who valued their lives had better vote Republican. Why? Because the GOP had been in office during 9/11 and had therefore learned firsthand what America's enemies were capable of and how to counter it. Under Karl Rove's deft touch, the original manifestation of the experience ploy worked to perfection. Just enough Americans were sufficiently frightened to provide the margin of victory in scores of political races, including the Bush reelection.
Fast forward to 2007 and we're hearing something similar again, this time from candidates in both parties and in a more sophisticated, less crudely expressed manner. John McCain's pitch is that he's been to war and learned from it. Rudolph Giuliani's is that he led New York City through the Twin Towers attack and understands security issues. Hillary Clinton's is that she absorbed the lessons of international conflict in the White House during her husband's tenure. Joe Biden's is that his 34 years in the Senate and extended service on the Foreign Relations Committee trumps all the others. Unfortunately, each is offering a rather simplistic appraisal of his or her background and its beneficial character.
Sen. Barack Obama, one of the "inexperienced" candidates, has contrasted his early opposition to the Iraq war with the fact that three of the four reputedly experienced candidates (Clinton, Biden, and McCain) voted to authorize the disastrous Bush invasion. Obama's observation about superior judgment rather than time on the job being the preferable quality in a potential president hits the proverbial nail on the head. It's possible, as someone said, to have years of experience in making the wrong decisions. Sometimes, too much experience prompts a tendency to follow the conventional wisdom, to make the presumed smart play, to do the safe thing, to defer to so-called experts. In a phrase, it can dull the senses, killing imagination and spontaneity. Ask Al Gore and John Kerry.
Experience can occasionally be a crippling handicap, as Hillary Clinton, more than the others, should know. A year prior to November 1992, virtually none of the experienced and prominent figures in the Democratic party would risk announcing for president against incumbent George H. W. Bush, then at 90% in the polls after chasing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. A green and little-known governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, was foolishly willing to take the chance. By election time, the Bush invulnerability was gone, and an inexperienced Democrat was on his way to the White House, while the savvy veteran politicians who had not run were kicking themselves.
History has a lot to say about the pros and cons of political experience. Some of our best presidents have been lacking in it -- with no discernible drawbacks. Theodore Roosevelt inherited the presidency at age 42, after six months as vice president, with prior public service only as police commissioner of New York City for three years, US assistant secretary of the Navy for two, and governor of New York for two more. TR's rival as an icon of the Progressive movement, Woodrow Wilson, had only three short years as governor of New Jersey behind him when he moved into the White House. John F. Kennedy was just 43 when he took office. He had more experience than Roosevelt or Wilson, but not much: three terms as a Massachusetts congressman and slightly over one term as US senator.
JFK's case is especially instructive. He was explicitly attacked for his inexperience during the 1960 campaign, yet showed the wisdom and understanding to manage the Cuban missile crisis as well or better than any president could ever hope to do, literally saving the world from annihilation. This relatively inexperienced chief executive, it also deserves remembering, served at the height of the Cold War, a time infinitely more threatening to the planet than today's overhyped era of terrorism. His more seasoned 1960 rival (eight years as vice president), Richard Nixon, later plunged the country into the morass of Watergate and failed to disengage from the quagmire of Vietnam for five long years. So much for the critical importance of political experience.
Back to the present and the ongoing evaluation of those vying for the 2008 nominations. In the Republican race, a so-called experienced candidate is likely to head the ticket no matter who wins, given that each of the leading contenders is claiming that mantle. Among the Democrats, things are a bit different, since the experience issue has (at the Clinton camp's instigation) become a major point of contention between Hillary Clinton and her supposedly less-seasoned main rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
So what is this great fount of experience the Clinton handlers keep insisting their candidate has, and why does the national media keep going along with the gag? Sen. Clinton was not president in the 1990s; her husband was. In addition to one Senate term, her national career consists of several years as a political first lady. She watched Bill Clinton make decisions, many of them flawed, and managed his administration's health-care initiative to a disastrous conclusion. Hillary Clinton's main experience amounts to having observed how her husband maneuvered to survive impeachment and retain power. It has provided her with insights of a sort, but not necessarily the kind of knowledge conducive to a successful presidency.
In the last analysis, judgment and character, inherent attributes that are implanted early in life, are the qualities we seek in a president. They are not exclusively associated with either age or youth, experience or inexperience; they're just there, or they aren't. We need to find the leader who has them, old or young, long resume or short.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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