Experience is a comb which nature gives to men when they are bald.” …Chinese Proverb
Lately I have been rummaging through the vastness of the World Wide Web in search of quotations on “experience.” The one above may be my favorite, although it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s lack of experience, compared to Richard Nixon, was constantly questioned. At one point, JFK told a little story about a banker who had been in the financial business for 40 years, but whose bank had gone bankrupt. “This man knew the banking business up and down, but you wouldn't hire him to run your bank,” Kennedy said. Or at least, I recall him saying something like that. I doubt if I remember it from his debates with Nixon. It probably was in something I read several years later.
There’s also this pearl of wisdom from another politician: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” That is attributed to former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Let's hope he learned from his.
But the one most pertinent to this year’s campaign comes from Mark Twain (as if there was any doubt): "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."
Or as Aldous Huxley wrote, “Exoerience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you."
Now the opposing camps in this year’s presidential warfare are firing shots at the rival ticket over “lack of experience.” Barack Obama has been a U.S. Senator for less than three years. McCain’s choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, has been governor of Alaska for a little over a year. Obama is just three years older than Palin (47 to 44), so neither has a full lifetime of experiences from which they have learned lessons.
Are neither of them ready for the high office they seek? Does one have better experience than the other? Or does none of it matter? What experience is relevant to the job?
The Republicans claim Sarah Palin is the only candidate among on either ticket who has executive experience. That discounts Obama's stint as president of the Harvard Law Review, director of Project Vote in 1992 and serving on the boards of directors of several foundations, including being chairman of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. None of these roles are as large as being a governor, but they add breadth to his experience. On top of that, he has put together a crack campaign organization that numbers 2,500 paid staff. This is a very disciplined and savvy organization that totally outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton's manager.
Another argument is that McCain has all the experience and he's the one running for president, while Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is the one with deep experience. This is supposed to be a positive for McCain. But look at it this way: if McCain suddenly dies, the reins are turned over to a raw rookie.
The thing I like best about Obama is that he has a very confident management style that allows for extensive debate and challenge among his subordinates. He chose Biden not so much to help win the election, but to help him govern. He realizes that for all his talk of change, there are going to be real hurdles to it and a guy like Biden has the connections to surmount many of those hurdles, not to mention the moxie to tell Obama what he really thinks.
Some people are able to take more from experience than others, and thus may not need as much before getting into a high profile position. Kwame Brown and LeBron James were both number one NBA draft picks out of high school, Brown in 2001 and James in 2003. (The Blazers' Travis Outlaw was also a first round pick in 2003). As things turned out, Brown had tremendous potential but never has lived up to it. Outlaw definitely was not ready to play professional basketball and took several years to develop. James was an instant star. It was his play in the Olympics that produced a gold medal for the U.S. team.
In this election, it's obvious which candidate is most like LeBron James.
So let's just stuff it about experience.
Sizing Up Former Presidents
Let’s take a look at presidents over the past 60 years as to how much experience they had before taking office:
Harry Truman: U.S. Senator for a decade before being selected as FDR’s vice president in 1944. So gobs of experience. He’s regarded now as a pretty good president, though his approval rating upon leaving office was just 22 percent.
Dwight Eisenhower: No conventional political experience, but a great deal of experience in managing an enormous operation—as supreme commander of allied forces in World War II. Considered a “do-nothing” president when he left office, he now is considered one of our better presidents.
John F. Kennedy: Six years in the House and seven years in the Senate. Compared to Nixon, he was called “inexperienced.” Actually, he had a lot of experience. Since he was assassinated in office, the jury is out on how good a president he was or would have been.
Lyndon Johnson: In 1964, when he was 58 years old and running for president against Barry Goldwater, he had spent exactly half of his life in national politics. That included 13 years in the House, 11 years in the Senate, six years as Senate Majority Leader, almost three years as vice president and one year as president. That’s hard to beat. Many regard him as a great president who was able to maneuver the landmark civil rights laws through Congress, as well as his Great Society programs. But his lack of judgment resulted in the U.S. getting deeper into the quicksand pit of Vietnam.
Richard Nixon: Before becoming Ike’s pick for vice president, Nixon has served in the House and Senate for a scant six years, so he didn’t have that much experience for that post. When he ran for president, however, he could claim eight years as vice president. He is always ranked as one of the worst presidents in American history, though he was pragmatic enough to go along with many liberal causes, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and imposing wage and price controls.
Gerald Ford: Spent 25 years in the House before becoming Nixon’s vice president. A great deal of experience, and yet not much to write home about.
Jimmy Carter: One term as governor of Georgia (after a couple of terms as a state senator). Had executive experience, but his downfall was alienating a Democratic Congress. Conventional wisdom deems Carter’s one term as a failure, but I think he was pretty good and definitely visionary. He definitely is our best ex-president.
Ronald Reagan: Two terms as governor of California is what he had. Plenty of executive experience if you believe Reagan was running the show. Turned out to be fairly pragmatic while adhering to an ultraconservative agenda. He got what he wanted most of the time, but it's questionable that what he accomplished was good for the country.
George H.W. Bush: You want experience? Bush I had more than anyone. Six years in the House, ambassador to the U.N., envoy to China, CIA director and of course, Reagan's VP. So with all that, he turned out to be a poor to mediocre one-term president who only looks better in comparison to his son.
Bill Clinton: Arkansas attorney general for two years and the state's governor for 12, giving him extensive executive and domestic policy experience. He was first elected governor in 1978 and embarked on very liberal policies, which led to his defeat two years later. When he won in 1982, he was more careful. He remained politically cautious in the White House (with the ill-fated exception of Hillary's health care plan). A Republican-controlled Congress and his own foibles may have kept him from being a great president.
George. W. Bush: As a kid, he was exposed to the political experiences of his father, but he must not have payed attention. His business career brings to mind the old joke: What's the easiest way to make a small fortune?* He did have a fairly successful six-year run as governor of Texas. He is now generally judged to be one of the worst presidents in history.
So what does that tell us? That experience is no indicator of presidential greatness, or even competence.
We all know that, of course. Abraham Lincoln, considered our greatest president, had just two years in the House and four terms in the Illinois legislature. In fact, he hadn't been elected to anything for the 12 years prior to winning the presidency.
*Answer: Start with a large fortune.