Tested (or Not)

Vice President George H. W. Bush steps out of Air Force Two in Myrtle Beach, S.C., during his presidential campaign, February 22, 1988. (National Archives)
On the question of presidential candidates and experience

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week, Sean Hannity asked President Trump a very good question: “What are your top priorities for a second term?” And the president gave a very interesting answer.

“Well, one of the things that will be really great — you know, the word ‘experience’ is still good,” he said. “I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word ‘experience’ is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning.”

The president continued, “I never did this before — I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington I think 17 times, all of a sudden, I’m the president of the United States. You know the story, I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say, ‘This is great.’ But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing.”

But “now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration.”

The president did confess error, saying, “You make some mistakes, like you know an idiot like Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.”

What’s a presidential answer without some slander and defamation?

Anyway, the president seemed to be saying that he didn’t know what he was doing when he got to Washington, having been elected president; and now he knows what he’s doing and will have a new-and-improved second term.

At least, that is one interpretation.

It is an interesting question, experience and the presidency. Long ago, I heard Richard Brookhiser say, “The presidency isn’t an entry-level political job, unless you’ve won a world war.” Or a civil war, I suppose. (The allusions are to Eisenhower and Grant, as you know.)

Traditionally, candidates with experience stress that experience. It is a card they have to play. And when you have less experience, you deflect, saying, for example, “Oh, my opponent has experience all right: experience running up deficits, hiking taxes, violating the Constitution . . .”

You go with what you got.

All things being equal, I think experience is very important — certainly if you want to be president. It is important both for the aspirant and for the voter.

Important to the voter? Well, if a candidate has political experience — office-holding experience — the voter can ask, “What has he done with political responsibility? How has he behaved in office?” and have answers.

And experience will help any office-holder — any president — I would think. It is not his first rodeo.

Nonetheless, I had to smile when Trump told Hannity, “I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that.” In writing on this topic — the presidency and experience, or politics and experience — I’ve often cited Bill Walton, the ex-NBA star.

Before the NCAA tournament in 1992, he was doing a show, I believe with Brent Musburger. A pre-tourney show. And he picked the Michigan Wolverines to win it all. “But Bill,” said Musburger (if it was he), “they start five freshmen!” Walton replied, “I’ll take talent over experience any day.”

(Michigan made it to the final game that year, but lost to the Duke Blue Devils.)

In 1988, the George Bush campaign ran an ad that said something like this: “Perhaps never in American history has a man been so prepared for the job of president as this man” — who had been a businessman, a congressman, a CIA director, a vice president, and more.

Would that help him in this day and age? Do voters still value experience? I wonder about this.

In 1996, Bob Dole was the Republican nominee, and he said, over and over, “I’ve been tested”: tested in war, tested in politics, tested in life. Do voters want potential presidents to have been tested?

I smile at a memory of 2000. It seems kind of quaint now. John Cusack, the actor, was supporting the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. He questioned the experience of the Republican nominee, Governor George W. Bush. Cusack said something like, “He’s been governor for just six years. Is that really enough?”

Also, people said, “Texas has a weak governorship.” Remember that one? It was a frequent Democratic talking point (and a Republican talking point, against Bush, during the primaries and caucuses).

Of course, we want political and philosophical affinity. That’s probably the main thing. Bernie Sanders has held office since 1981. But what conservative would want a socialist, no matter how much experience the socialist has?

Mitch McConnell has plenty of experience, having held office since 1977. But what Democrat would want him?

Don’t forget Joe Biden — who was first elected to office in 1969. He’s been at it for more than half a century! But no Republican would honor him for that, I wouldn’t think: Been wrong for 50 years. (Sounds like me.)

Like George Bush — George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president — James Buchanan had a lot of experience — a lot of experience — before he became president in 1857. Gosh, he had done almost everything: as a House member, an ambassador, a senator, secretary of state . . .

Most consider him a very poor president. He was succeeded by Lincoln, who had had one term in the U.S. House (plus four in the Illinois house). In George F. Will’s view, Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics.” (I agree.)

Let me tell you about my friend Ted Cruz, who ran for president in 2016. He had been elected to the Senate in 2012. I was worried that people would fault him for presumptuousness: He just got to the Senate, and he thinks he can be president already? Really, dude, get a little seasoning.

But, you know? The fact that he had any experience at all seemed to be a problem with voters, many of them. He was tainted by his time in Washington, brief as it had been. He was a “Swamp”-dweller, you see.

And he knew things. Very suspicious.

In the recent Democratic primaries and caucuses, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — former mayor, by the time the Iowa caucuses rolled around! — did amazingly well. (Talented guy, whatever we may think of his politics.) A colleague of mine remarked, “He got, like, 8,500 votes in South Bend, a town of 100,000. And he wants to be president?”

Good point. But how many votes had Donald Trump received, for anything, before he ran for president? None, right?

These are confusing times. People are waiting to see whom Biden will choose as his running mate — because that person may well be president ere long. (Sorry if this is macabre.) Biden’s choice carries unusual significance. “Ready on Day One” is a cliché, but this year’s Democratic vice-presidential nominee should probably be ready on Day One: ready to be president.

On Biden’s shortlist, we read, is Val Demings, who was elected to the House in 2016. (From 2007 to 2011, she was chief of police in Orlando.) Impressive woman, surely. But does she have enough experience? Is she prepared to be president? Would she be ready on Day One?

Also under consideration, apparently, is Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta. She was elected to that job in 2017. Ready to be president?

Ordinarily, I would say no, but Trump has changed the equation. Or rather, the Republican Party and the American people have. Trump had been a reality-TV star and a Howard Stern guest. A tabloid figure. And Republican voters nominated him and voters at large elected him.

So . . .

So do Republicans have any right to say the likes of Demings or Bottoms aren’t ready?

To be president, you’ve got to be three things, strictly speaking — just three, and here they are:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Recently, I did a little writing about Spiro Agnew, and I was surprised that he had been governor (of Maryland) for only a year and a half when Nixon picked him. The same would be true of Sarah Palin, when John McCain picked her: She had been governor of Alaska for a year and a half.

Can I take you to Taiwan for a minute? A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about that country and the pandemic. Interesting, about Taiwan’s vice presidents. Until May 20 — an inauguration day — the VP was an epidemiologist who earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins. The new VP has a master’s in public health from Harvard.

“Technocratic,” some people say — this is a putdown word. Still, a little expertise is sometimes useful in government, as in life generally. Experience doesn’t hurt either.

It is not the be-all, end-all. It is not nothing either.

Let me leave you with a memory, another one — may make you smile: In the 1996 cycle, a bumper sticker appeared. A colleague of mine had it in her office window. It said, “Helms-Thurmond ’96: Don’t let 200 years of experience go to waste.”

If you would like to contact Jay Nordlinger, or receive his Impromptus column by e-mail, write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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