Obama-Biden, McCain-Palin, and the experience question
Truman and Reagan showed that character and common sense matter more than a good résumé.
The nominating conventions, each dramatic in different ways, are nearly done and Americans are on the last lap toward the new presidency.
Sen. Barack Obama promises billions for good works but is sketchy about how to pay for them. Sen. John McCain promises to bring the troops home with honor and victory, but nobody knows how this will really leave Iraq.
Obama will continue to dazzle us until Nov. 4 with charismatic eloquence. McCain, who never met a teleprompter he liked, will continue to exude sincerity in smaller gatherings.
Both sides are seized with the issue of "experience," which probably will weigh heavily with the voters.
But what does experience mean? Does it mean academic achievement? Running a big corporation? Many years in governance? Or does it mean principle, character, and common sense?
William F. Buckley, that acerbic but astute late observer of our times, once declared: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard University."
In recent years, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan have come to be considered among America's most effective presidents. Yet the experience of each for presidential office was held in question prior to their respective installations.
Truman never went to college but his biographer, David McCullough, says he read voraciously. By 14 he had devoured volumes on Egypt, Greece and Rome. In high school he claimed to have read every one of 2,000 books, including encyclopedias, in the school library. Except for a stint in Europe as a National Guard officer in World War I, he was not well-traveled.
Despite doubts about his qualifications for office, it was he as president who had to make the difficult decisions to use the atomic bomb, commit American forces to Korea, and help create the United Nations.
Adlai Stevenson III cited him as an "example of the ability of this society to yield up, from the most unremarkable origins, the most remarkable men."
Biographer David McCullough says Truman "stood for common sense."
Reagan had been a governor of California, a state bigger than many countries, but still was dismissed as a former B-movie actor with little depth, when he came to the presidency.
I remember Secretary of State George Shultz returning from his one-on-one meetings with President Reagan. He would give us, his small team of advisers, a debrief on the president's current ideas about nuclear weaponry, the Soviet empire, and strategic relations. Some of the foreign policy traditionalists dismissed them as impractical. Reagan held to his instincts and – lest we forget – played a crucial role in ending the cold war. Today he is lauded for achievements to which he applied good common sense.
McCain is properly revered for his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His experience in foreign affairs is unchallenged, as is the foreign-affairs expertise of Senator Biden.
Obama, still in his first senate term, and Ms. Palin, who's been governor for less than two years, are held to much sharper scrutiny about how their experience qualifies them for the positions they seek.
McCain's age is sometimes raised as another question mark.
But if you average the ages of the McCain-Palin team and the Obama-Biden team, they are just a couple of years apart. (How intriguing to speculate that if McCain wins, serves only one term, and Palin runs as successor, we might see a presidential contest in 2012 that features two women: Palin and a resurgent Hillary Clinton.)
Voters should of course examine the policy differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates. But principle, character, and common sense should get even sharper scrutiny.
Having spent a good part of my life covering changes in government around the world determined by the bayonet and bloodshed, tanks and coups at the palace gates, or theft and illegal stuffing of ballot boxes, I continue to marvel at the peaceful democratic way in which the change of government takes place in the most militarily and economically powerful nation in the world.
Though the process is too long, and sometimes ungainly, Americans should treasure it.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration. He is currently a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.