“Who has the experience to be president of the United States?”
The announcement of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate has heated up the “experience” arguments. Critics of the nomination say that being the mayor of a small town and the governor of a sparsely populated state does not prepare her to be a world leader. Her supporters reply that the experience of a mayor and a governor trumps that of a community organizer and senator.
Let’s look at the question as dispassionately as we can. In the history of this nation, there have been 43 presidents. Which ones were qualified to fill the office, what experience prepared them for that responsibility?
How about the first one, George Washington? His experience consisted of being a farmer and a military officer lacking formal training. As a military officer he lost more battles than he won. He had never been elected to any kind of office prior to becoming president.
We don’t want to go through all 43 presidents, so let’s skip ahead to Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be the nation’s greatest president. What experience did he have that prepared him for the office? Almost none. His venture into store keeping failed, he was “un-elected” as a captain of volunteers in the Blackhawk War, and he lost a senatorial election. All he was really good at was talking. He was a successful lawyer and story teller. And, even when he won the presidency, he attracted only 39 percent of the popular vote.
How about Harry Truman? Never was there a more invisible man before he became president, and never had a man failed at more enterprises than he. His political success, whether as county commissioner or U.S. Senator, was made possible by the support of the corrupt Pendergast political machine. He was a terrible speaker and had to live with his mother-in-law. Yet he is acknowledged today for his honesty and integrity. John F. Kennedy? Unlike Lincoln or Truman, he had no failures in his resume because he never did anything other than run for political office. He used his reputation as a war hero and his daddy’s money to win election to the Senate and squeezed into the presidency with the help of some murky Chicago politicos. Khrushchev called him “the boy” and moved missiles into Cuba. But Kennedy proved he had the mettle to fill the office.
Ronald Reagan had decades of experience as a movie star. Bill Clinton was unknown outside of Arkansas. George W. Bush was an oil speculator, owned a baseball team and served as a Texas governor. None of them could identify the name of the prime minister of Sri Lanka.
Which presidents were “best prepared,” in terms of experience, for the presidency? Well, uh, let’s see…. John Adams. He helped write the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, served in the Continental Congress, and was ambassador to Great Britain and France. He did not fare well as president. Woodrow Wilson was said to excel as a college professor. Herbert Hoover spent a lifetime in government, distributed aid to refugees of World War I and knew how to catch trout. Yet his name, 80 years after his term, is remembered with disdain.
Do any of the current nominees for president/vice-president have experience that prepares them for the presidency? No. There is really no criteria. So let’s stop arguing about it. Instead, let’s look for intangible qualities that have nothing to do with party affiliation, background or “experience.”