Winston Spencer Churchill was first elected to Parliament in Great Britain in 1900. He became prime minister 40 years later, having in the meantime served twice as First Lord of the Admiralty, then at the Home Office and the Treasury.
His successor at 10 Downing St., Harold Macmillan, had 33 years of apprenticeship in British politics before reaching the top rung of the ladder. He had served during his training period at the Foreign Office and the Treasury.
Lord Home had 32 years of apprenticeship, Harold Wilson 19, James Callaghan 31. The present prime minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, was a member of Parliament for 20 years before heading the government.
There is no law which says that a prime minister shall have been in Parliament and held certain posts before becoming eligible for the prime ministership. But like so many other unwritten features of the unwritten British constitution there might just as well be. It is inconceivable today that the British would choose as a prime minister someone who had not become a familiar and respected member of Parliament and proved him or herself in at least one and preferably several cabinet posts before being considered ready for the highest responsibility.
James Callaghan is a classic example. He had two years at the Foreign Office , six years at the Home Office, and six years at the Treasury to his credit before he was considered ready for the top.
To be a president of the United States a person must be 35 years of age, native-born, and a resident for the previous 14 years. Nothing either in the Constitution or in existing practive requires experience in government or the legislature in Washington.
The US is now watching the closing days of a presidency which is currently regarded as less than successful. (History may be kinder.) It had not been preceded by any experience in government in Washington. And waiting in the wings is a new president-to-be who is equally unseasoned by experience in the capital.
Would James Earl Carter (he insisted on being called Jimmy, which may have been one of his important early mistakes) have been a more successful president had he been seasoned by training in Congress or government office? Certainly. Probably his worst mistake was in failing to realize the importance and the power of Congress.
Had he done previous service in Congress, one of his opening moves as President would not have been to announce that he was cancelling all those irrigation and power dams which were, and are, unjustifiable economically, but can mean political life or death to a senator or a member of the House. Also, had he entered the White House after a seasoning in government he would have used the vast machinery of the government more, instead of trying to do too much himself with a small staff of personal intimates from Georgia.
Ronald Reagan has several advantages over Mr. Carter. California is a larger state than Georgia. As a governor of California he brushed up against a lot of people who knew Washington. He can choose among many veterans from the Nixon and Ford administrations. He could and did consult both of his Republican predecessors in the White House. He is less a loner than Mr. Carter.
But we can see in his first important political blunder the consequences of not having been trained in government in Washington. Not one who had served in Congress or downtown Washington during the Nixon-Ford years would have picked Mr. Nixon's last White House chief of staff to be secretary of state. No matter how splendid Gen. Alexander Haig's credentials or how innocent he may be of any wrongdoing, the fact is that to name him to a high cabinet post is to force on the Democrats a replay of the Watergate story.
Mr. Reagan has said he hopes for a bipartisan foreign policy. He can't expect a man who tried to protect Mr. Nixon during the "coverup," managed the resignation, and helped arranged the pardon to be considered a nonpartisan, or to be plausible as the manager of a nonpartisan foreign policy. This is even more true when the person involved is universally regarded in political cricles as a candidate for the presidency in 1984.
The Haig nomination not only assures a sharp partisan tussle over confirmation. It also means that Democrats will be skeptical of any policy proposed and managed by General Haig. They are hardly going to encourage the career of the man they think they may well be running against three-and-a-half years from now.
Advance training in Washington could have spared Mr. Reagan this mistake.