Impromptus

Experience and inexperience, &c.

Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Dubuque, Iowa, on September 23, 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)
On presidential politics, sorrows of education, and more

A friend of mine was shaking his head at the modesty of Pete Buttigieg’s political experience: “He got, like, 8,500 votes in a town of 100,000! And he wants to be president?”

That is cause for head-shaking indeed. But then, Pete won 8,500 more votes than Donald Trump ever received, before he was elected president.

In that election, one nominee was a former first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state; the other one was Trump — a reality-TV star and classic Howard Stern guest.

And in the GOP primaries that cycle? Lots of experienced politicians: governors and senators and so on. Plus Trump (and Ben Carson and maybe a couple of others).

The voters will get whom they want, period.

In the past, I’d quote Rick Brookhiser, who said, “The presidency is not an entry-level political job, unless you’ve won a world war.” That was an allusion to Eisenhower, of course. Ulysses S. Grant, too, was elected. He had won a different kind of war.

But then came Trump — and all bets are off.

Does the candidate you favor have experience? Then you stress experience, and argue for its importance. Does your guy, or gal, have scant experience? Then you blow it off — the issue of experience, that is.

I often cite George Bush the Elder and, long before him, James Buchanan. Each had loads of experience. Buchanan had been a congressman, an ambassador, a senator, a secretary of state; Bush had been a congressman, an ambassador, a CIA director, a vice president.

I regard Bush as a good president and Buchanan as a bad one. (The historical consensus, I gather, is that Buchanan was a disaster.) Experience counts, but only for so much.

How about Lincoln? One term in the House, right? (Plus four in the Illinois house.) It is George F. Will’s view that Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics.” I am inclined to agree.

Consider Bernie Sanders, please: He has held office since 1981. That’s a lot of political experience. So? He’s a socialist — and whether you’re a new one or an old one, you are bad news, in my book.

Regardless, Sanders is a rookie — a greenhorn — compared with Joe Biden: who first held office in 1969.

I smile at the memory of a bumper sticker which appeared when the GOP was holding primaries, and President Clinton was running for reelection: “Thurmond-Helms ’96: Don’t Let 200 Years of Experience Go to Waste.”

I smile at another memory, of a different nature: Before the 1992 NCAA basketball tournament, Bill Walton was on television, doing some handicapping. He picked Michigan to win it all. Someone else — Brent Musburger? — said, “But Bill, they start five freshmen!” Walton answered, “I’ll take talent over experience any day.”

(Michigan made it to the final that year, losing to Duke.)

In 2004, Democrats wanted you to know something: A president had to have military experience, and, more than that, combat experience. Otherwise, forget him. The Democratic nominee showed up at the convention that year and said, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” Then he snapped off a salute.

That was a shot at George W. Bush, you see — whom Kerry was calling a shirker.

Four years later, the Democratic nominee was Barack Obama and the Republican nominee John McCain. Strangely, you did not hear a peep from the Dems — not a peep — about military experience, to say nothing of combat experience.

May I go back to 2004, for another memory? I was on a television program with a Democratic strategist. She said, “Bush betrayed his country about why we went to war in Iraq, just like he betrayed them when he didn’t fight in Vietnam.”

Uh-huh.

There is no principle here, no genuine thought. It’s all partisan politics, all tribalism.

You like “disruption” and “norm-breaking”? You can’t have it for your side only, while the other side remains non-disruptive and norm-observing. You see what I mean? If the china is broken, it’s broken for all, and if voters want Pete, what the hay.

Or is it “hey”?

• Of course, it is classically conservative to prize experience, though other considerations come into play. (Considerations such as talent, mental soundness, and morality.) Remember Oakeshott: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

• A reader sent me an article, about a New York City high school. A bewildering, disturbing, depressing article, in my opinion. See what you think.

The headline: “Overheard Affirmative Action Comment Sparks Protest At Beacon High School.” The opening sentence: “Beacon High School students are staging a sit-in on Monday to protest what they say is a culture of racism at the prestigious public school.”

Culture of racism? What happened? “The demonstration was sparked by a private conversation between a white senior and her guidance counselor, in which the student allegedly blamed affirmative action for her being waitlisted at a top college. A black student claimed last week to have overheard the remarks and shared them with fellow high schoolers.”

Uh-oh. The article quotes a student, a freshman, who said, “We were all shocked, and for us people of color, we didn’t feel safe.”

I have to say, I found this story more sad than anything else: that high-school students could be so fragile; that they are allowed, by the adults around them, to be so immature; that they are not, apparently, told to grow up.

If you feel unsafe because someone’s worried that she’s being screwed by affirmative action — how will you feel when dangers come along? Life throws up plenty of those, unfortunately.

Moreover, the world is loaded with racism. If I were a teacher or administrator, I would advise these students — who are privileged beyond the comprehension of billions of people in this hard, punishing world — to hold their fire for the genuine article.

You see why I’m unemployable in most of America? So grateful for Bill Buckley and his National Review . . .

• From lower ed to higher ed: Yesterday, I was walking through the Columbia campus and noticed something on the library — a banner, above the names etched into the façade. Wanna see a picture?

The etched names are those of ancient worthies, on whom much education rests. The names on the banner are those of Angelou, Anzaldúa, Chang, Hurston, Morrison, Revathi, Shange, and Silko.

It does not seem to me like an entirely fair fight.

When I got home, I Googled around and found this article from CNN:

Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle. Demosthenes. Cicero. Vergil.

Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male.

That’s not the way I would put it. I would say, “Ancient, immortal great, and benefactor to mankind. Ancient, immortal great, and benefactor to mankind. Ancient, immortal great . . .”

What distinguishes those guys is not their sex — not their genitalia. Most of the males who have ever lived, we’ve never heard of, for good reason. What distinguishes them is that they were great minds, hearts, pens, etc., who have enriched us all.

My hero in these matters, by the way, is Maya Angelou (the first name on the banner). When she was a girl, she was convinced that Shakespeare had been a black girl. Otherwise, how could he understand her so well? “I didn’t care what they told me,” Angelou said. “I was convinced that he was a little black girl.” And she was convinced that he was writing directly to her.

“Whenever I like, I pull him to me,” she said. Anyone can.

I also think of W. E. B. Du Bois, in his Souls of Black Folk: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously. . . . So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”

I feel sorry for those Columbia kids — the ones who felt the need to put up the banner — I really do. Maybe they will grow up, by and by. Maybe they will get their minds off sex, race, and ethnicity and onto ideas. May they reach that altitude with Du Bois, above the Veil . . .

• You may have seen what President Trump said to supporters of his on Friday: “And I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that. I believe that.” I immediately thought of Reagan, and, via Google, zeroed in on it: “America was founded by people who believed that God was their rock of safety. I recognize we must be cautious in claiming that God is on our side, but I think it’s all right to keep asking if we’re on His side.”

• Care for a little music? I have a quick review for you: of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, on New Year’s Eve. The Vespers is a sacred masterpiece, by a composer best known for splashy piano concertos. As I say in my review, he was a man of parts, Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff. And a great man.

Thanks for joining me, y’all. See you soon.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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