Luck vs. experience

Much has been made in the Democratic presidential campaign of “experience” — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s versus Barack Obama’s.

From the biographer’s and historian’s perspectives this is an interesting point. Clinton’s first political experience was as a Young Republican, then as a student activist alongside her boyfriend at Yale Law School, Democrat Bill Clinton. Following him to Fayetteville, she taught law at the University of Arkansas and then became a corporate lawyer, once he stood for Arkansas attorney general and governor.

Her successful work for education reform in Arkansas was conducted on behalf of her husband — as was her ill-fated health-care reform when he became president. Yes, she constantly gained in experience as a wife, a mother, an activist and a lawyer — but her own trajectory as an elected political official dates only from 2000, when she stood for the U.S. Senate in New York, four years before Obama stood for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.

Obama, having been previously elected to the Illinois Senate, in 1997, is therefore a more experienced elected politician than the former first lady, though a political generation younger. The real question is therefore: What experience best fits a candidate to become a modern president?

The answer is that there is no experience that can be counted on to prepare a politician to lead the American people. One way in which a voter can perform a reality check, however, is to match the candidate against a previous politician or government executive of similar ilk and personality.

In Clinton’s case, the obvious parallel is with Eleanor Roosevelt, whose bust she instructed to be mounted in the White House. Roosevelt became a tireless activist for social causes — but her only experience in government, when appointed deputy director of the Office of Civil Defense by her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, proved a disaster. She resigned and devoted herself again to those causes which she could espouse without compromise, from civil rights to the welfare of the underprivileged.

In Obama’s case the obvious parallel is with Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy, whose high intelligence and inspiring rhetoric were considered — by Eleanor Roosevelt at least — to be too insubstantial to merit nomination for the presidency, at least in comparison with her beloved friend Adlai Stevenson, once the Illinois governor.

Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was right — as the Bay of Pigs and then Kennedy’s poor showing in a confrontation in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, soon showed. Kennedy learned from those lessons, however, and by the second and third years of his presidency he demonstrated both domestically and internationally that the expectations of voters had not been misplaced, despite his “inexperience.”

The presidency, in other words, has its own learning curve — just as we are witnessing today with the 43rd president, as he tries belatedly to rectify the mistakes and misfortunes of his early tenancy in Pennsylvania Avenue.

No experience can ever mold a man or woman for that high office. Even Clinton’s husband went through a fiasco-marred first year as president, for all that he had served five terms as governor of his state.

In the end, temperament, good judgment, courage, the ability to delegate responsibility and to learn from one’s mistakes and other aspects of leadership, learned and inherited, are the crucial qualities we should look for, as the candidates present themselves to the public. Whoever is elected will need them. Oh, and something else, as Napoleon well knew. “But is he lucky?” he would ask before appointing any general.

(Nigel Hamilton is a biographer of Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy and is writing a study of the last 12 presidents, to be called “American Caesars.” He is a fellow of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.)