'Experience' is a phony issue in this campaign

03/16/2008 1:57 PM

01/14/2009 2:02 PM

Hillary Clinton is right. Barack Obama does not have the experience to be president of the United States.

But then, neither does she. Neither does John McCain.

We Americans have spent a lot of time in recent weeks debating experience, which candidate will be ready "from day one" to answer the 3 a.m. phone call in the White House. (What, the White House doesn't have a switchboard?) When the campaign began a hundred years ago, that seemed a sensible debate to have, especially given Obama's short term in the Senate and upon the national stage.

I've since reconsidered. Sensible as it may superficially seem, the whole "experience" debate strikes me now as a phony issue in a campaign full of the same.

* In the first place: As Obama has noted, if he's too inexperienced to be president, why do Clinton and her surrogates keep telling us what a great running mate he would make?

* In the second place: As Chris Rock has observed, being married to the president does not qualify one to be president, any more than being married to a comedian qualifies one to tell jokes.

* In the third place: Obama would hardly be the first president to come to office with little experience in national politics. Abraham Lincoln, like Obama, had eight years in Illinois state government and a few more in Congress. Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant had never held elective office.

Then there's Chester Arthur. He was a lawyer before running for vice-president under James Garfield. When Garfield was killed, six months into his term, the lawyer found himself president.

This debate, I think, proceeds from a false premise: that there's a body of learning which, once absorbed, qualifies a person for the presidency.

Consider James Buchanan, who brought to office a college degree and 31 years of experience as a senator, representative, diplomat and state lawmaker. He sat idle while the Union disintegrated around him. His successor, the aforementioned Lincoln, was a rough-hewn, self-taught frontier lawyer with a fraction of Buchanan's experience. He acted boldly to save the Union and, in the process, became arguably the greatest president of all.

The moral of the story is not that experience is irrelevant. No, the moral is that experience is not the only barometer, that the presidency also requires reasoning, knowledge, maturity, leadership and some sense of how the world works. There is no president school, no certificate that says you're ready. The presidency is an entity unto itself, its responsibilities and burdens unique beyond anyone's ability to prepare for them. Small wonder.

The president of the United States governs 303 million people, presides over a $14 trillion annual economy -- the largest on earth -- commands the world's most formidable military, sets the agenda for the planet's only superpower, stands answerable to history on a daily basis. Do you really think Bill Clinton's 12 years as governor of Arkansas prepared him for that? How about George W. Bush's six years as governor of Texas?

Richard Nixon, of all people, once said character was the most important qualification for being president. Lyndon Johnson said, "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands." And John Kennedy once groused to Barry Goldwater, "So, you want this [expletive] job."

Which brings to mind an iconic picture of Kennedy, standing at a White House window. He is alone, head bowed, his thoughts unknowable, his isolation and burden palpable. It drives home the absurdity of debating what prepares one for the presidency. To me, it's obvious:

Nothing does.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr

@LeonardPittsJr1

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday.

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