Magazine September 21, 2020, Issue

The Question of Experience

James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln (Buchanan: Time Life Pictures/Contributor/Getty Images. Lincoln: Popperfoto/Contributor/Getty Images)
On presidential candidates and what they’ve done

The Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, was first elected to the Senate in 1972, when he was 29. (He turned 30 before his swearing-in, thus making him constitutionally eligible.) The other day, John F. Harris, of Politico, was having a little fun with time: When Biden was first in the Senate, he had six colleagues who had been born in the 19th century. If Biden is elected president, he will probably have aides who will see the 22nd century.

An impressive span.

Biden is 77, his opponent, President Trump, 74. The latter had never made a serious run for office until he was elected four years ago (and many questioned the seriousness of that run). This summer, Trump’s friend Sean Hannity asked him a very good question: “What are your top priorities for a second term?” 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. 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.”

Now, however, “I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration.”

Trump implied that his second term would be better, in light of his acquaintance with Washington. A lot of people think presidents are better off without second terms. Some of these people like Polk, who had pledged to serve only one term and did so, with distinction.

“The presidency is not an entry-level political job, unless you’ve won a world war.” Richard Brookhiser used to say this pre-2016, alluding to Eisenhower. How about if you’ve won a civil war? U. S. Grant did so. Zachary Taylor was a hero of the Mexican-American War.

You have to begin this list with the first president, George Washington, right? Well, no: Washington had been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. (A veritable “swamp creature”!)

All things being equal, political experience is helpful. The presidency is a big and daunting job. But all things are almost never equal. A person’s views, character, talent, and ability are of great importance.

I somewhat agree with President Trump on talent. And I think back to 1992 and the NCAA basketball tournament. In a pre-game show, Bill Walton picked the Michigan Wolverines to win it all. Someone said, “But Bill, they start five freshmen!” Walton responded, “I’ll take talent over experience any day.”

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

When a candidate lacks experience, and his opponent has it, he uses a standard line. It might go something like this: “Yes, I don’t have as much experience as my opponent. In fact, I have no experience in hiking taxes. No experience in ignoring the Constitution. No experience in sending our sons and daughters into foolish wars . . .”

You leverage what you can. You play the hand you are dealt.

What if you’re rich, and accused of “buying” the election? You say, “Unlike my opponent, I’m not beholden to the special interests. I’m nobody’s man but yours.” In fact, that was Lowell Weicker’s slogan in Connecticut: “Nobody’s man but yours.” (Born in Paris, Weicker went to the Lawrenceville School and Yale, and lived in Greenwich. He had to find a way to overcome his upscale background.)

In West Virginia, Arch Moore was up against Jay Rockefeller. The Moore campaign put out a bumper sticker: “Make him spend it all, Arch.” (Moore lost that year. By the way, his daughter Shelley is currently a U.S. senator from West Virginia.)

But back to experience. In 1988, the Republican nominee, Vice President Bush, put out a television ad that went, “This is no time for uncertainty. No time to train somebody in how to meet with the Russians. This is the time for strength and experience. This is the time for somebody who is ready on Day One to be a great president.”

Bush had had exceptionally wide experience: naval aviator, businessman, congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, CIA director, vice president. Has anyone ever had more, prior to being elected president?

Buchanan had had a lot too, in 1856: congressman, envoy to Russia, senator, secretary of state, minister to England. Buchanan is generally judged a very poor president. His successor? One term in the U.S. House, preceded by four in the Illinois house. (He had done a great deal of thinking, writing, and debating too, to put it mildly.)

In George F. Will’s view, Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics,” and many of us are inclined to agree.

Bush the Elder ran again in 1992, losing to Bill Clinton. (Clinton referred to the president as “old Bush.”) Four years later, Bob Dole was the Republican nominee. “I’ve been tested,” he said, over and over: tested in war; tested in peace (when he fought back from hideous war injuries); tested as majority leader of the Senate; tested as a vice-presidential nominee back in ’76.

By the way, Dole made an interesting comment on age in 1988, after he lost the GOP nomination to Bush. Trying to cheer him up, someone said to him, “There’s always ’96” (a statement that assumed the election and reelection of Bush). Dole cracked, “Yeah, that’s how old I’ll be.”

In fact, he was 73 in 1996. He is 97 today.

I remember the actor John Cusack in 2000, campaigning for Vice President Gore. He questioned whether Bush the Younger had enough experience to be president: a mere six years in the governor’s office? Democrats in general emphasized that the office in Texas is a “weak governorship.”

In 2012, my friend Ted Cruz was elected to the Senate from Texas. It was assumed, and rightly, that Ted would run for president at the first opportunity, which was in the 2016 cycle. Some (Republican) critics said, “We don’t need another Obama.” In other words, Barack Obama had run for president, and won, after just four years in the Senate, and how was that working out?

Frankly, I was worried that my friend would be thought too green to run for president. Too unseasoned. A presidential bid at this stage would seem presumptuous, almost an affront.

In the environment of the 2016 Republican primaries and caucuses, Ted’s experience was, if anything, a negative. I’m talking about the fact that he had any experience at all. He was tainted, you see, by a few years in the Senate. He was not innocent of governmental knowledge. He was a “swamp creature” (which, I might have explained earlier, is what you call someone who has experience in Washington and whom you don’t like).

Flash forward to 2020 — the Democratic primaries and caucuses. A friend of mine said, “Mayor Pete got, like, 8,500 votes in South Bend, a town of 100,000. And he wants to be president?” Yes, Buttigieg was a thousand times more audacious than Obama or Cruz. But, in fairness, 8,500 votes was 8,500 more than Donald Trump ever received, prior to 2016.

Do you like experience? How about Bernie Sanders, who has held office since 1981? (Or Biden, who was elected to the New Castle County Council, in Delaware, in 1970?) Oh, you’re a conservative? So no. How about Mitch McConnell, who has held office since 1977? Oh, you’re a liberal? So no. More than anything else, probably, we want political and philosophical affinity — and if it comes with experience, so much the better.

Thinking about experience and age — which are usually, though not always, related — I think of Lorin Maazel, the late conductor. When he was about 80, I asked him what I thought was a lay-up of a question: Is age an advantage on the podium? Of course it is, right? Not necessarily, said Maazel.

“It depends on who’s growing older. I’ve always tried to learn as I’ve moved forward in life, and I consider each performance to be a learning experience, and try to capitalize on what I’ve learned.” That is not true of all conductors or other musicians, said Maazel. “Some of them age complacently, and those folks don’t improve, I’m afraid. It’s a question of mindset.”

As you have seen, I go back and forth on the question of experience in politics. How can you not? But, to say it again, experience is very helpful, very important, all things being equal (which they seldom are). Experience is important both for the aspirant and for the voter.

For the voter? Yes, because 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, I would think: because that office will not be his first rodeo.

Many of my friends like to disdain “career politicians,” and I’ve done it myself from time to time. You know who was a “career politician” (though he found ample time for writing)? Winston S. Churchill — who first ran for office in the Oldham by-election of 1899 and never stopped running until 1964. He learned a lot along the way. And, to be sure, he had talent from the start.

I will leave you with something light: In 1996, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were a couple of old, right-wing, controversial southern senators. A colleague of mine had a bumper sticker in her office window: “Helms-Thurmond ’96: Don’t let 200 years of experience go to waste.”

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