Experience: Is it all it is cracked up to be

Published as ‘Vice squad’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 6 October 2008, p. 15.

Much is being made in the United States election campaigns of the relative levels of experience and inexperience of the candidates for president and vice-president. Yet if history is anything to go by, then it is not clear that anything prepares a person to serve as president of the United States. Some of the most successful presidents have had relatively little relevant training for the position, while some others, who seemed extremely well qualified, made, at best, a poor fist of the role.

Harry Truman was pitched into the job when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office in April 1945 only a couple of months into his fourth term as president. He had been a Senator for Missouri since 1934 and had chaired a wartime committee that helped cut waste in the supply of munitions to the armed services. But he had not been consulted on international affairs by Roosevelt and within days he had to make the decisions to test and then use the atomic bomb for the first, and so far the only occasion, in military conflict. He also had to settle the post-war shape of the world with Stalin and Churchill and was behind the Marshall Plan for European recovery and the setting up of the United Nations. His catchcry, ‘the buck stops here’ reflected his willingness to accept the responsibility for his decisions. At times in his presidency his approval rating was as low as that of George W Bush today. But most judges now would say that Truman was one of the best American presidents.

Ronald Reagan’s career as a Hollywood B-film actor and two terms as governor of California hardly prepared him for the White House, for which he stood unsuccessfully twice before securing the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980. He had originally been a Democrat when he entered politics. His economic policies in practice were often the complete opposite of the philosophical position he professed. Having come to power on the basis of campaign for small government he instituted a massive growth in government spending on the military and presided over an arms race that helped to bring about the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism. He too gets a favourable assessment from most commentators today.

Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer who spent some time working in Australia and founded the Zinc Corporation along with William Baillieu. During the First World War he organised food supplies and relief in Europe and served as the secretary of commerce under two presidents—Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge—in the 1920s. But when he became Republican president himself in 1928 it was just in time to preside over the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression. All his practical experience and economic knowledge did not equip him to deal with this catastrophe. High tariffs and high taxation made things worse not better.

In more recent times, John F Kennedy had less political experience than his opponent Richard Nixon, when he won in 1960, while Nixon, with all his accumulated knowledge, ruined his international successes with low-level incompetence and corruption at home, when he eventually won in 1968 and again in 1972. He resigned in 1974 to head off impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal cover-up. I doubt if history will be kind to George W Bush, who had a strong political pedigree and two terms as governor of Texas but showed himself to be unable to cope with major crises at home and abroad. In his case it is probably more deficiencies of character than lack of experience that is at the bottom of his problems.

So though experience will be used as a stick to beat candidates in the current election run-in, it is arguable that this is not the key feature that should determine the outcome. It might be strength of character and a willingness to learn how to deal with new and unforeseen issues for which the voters should be looking.

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