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Voters 'Rolled the Dice' on Lincoln

By David Shribman

Not since Dwight Eisenhower asked for a week to think about the contributions Vice President Nixon made to his administration has a former American president so prominently entered a campaign for the White House. But Bill Clinton neatly framed much of last week's campaign debate when he suggested that supporters of Senator Obama were willing to "roll the dice" on the presidency.

Mr. Clinton's intention was clear: to suggest that, unlike Senator Clinton of New York, the Illinois Democrat doesn't have the kind of experience needed to be president. That raises an important issue -- and a question that Mr. Clinton, running against the vastly more experienced George H.W. Bush, did not welcome in 1992.

No one argues that Mrs. Clinton has more conventional pre-presidential experience than Mr. Obama, though I would contend that the unconventional experience that both candidates possess is far more interesting and far more suited to the challenges of the 21st century than their service in the Senate, which history has shown is terrible experience for the White House. Only Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy were elected to the presidency directly from the Senate.

The American experience is that experience is no predictor of presidential success. Three of the most experienced presidents of the 20th century, for example, were three of the least successful.

William Howard Taft, an intellectual protege of Yale Professor William Graham Sumner, was U.S. solicitor general, a U.S. circuit court judge, governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war. He served a single unhappy term as president and then was repudiated by his political mentor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Herbert Hoover, the youngest member of Stanford University's first class, was a highly successful mining engineer, the organizational genius behind World War I relief efforts, a member of a zillion governmental boards and commissions (including the one for the relief of Belgium), and secretary of commerce for eight years. He was not re-elected to the presidency and still is blamed, almost certainly unfairly, for the Great Depression.

Richard Nixon, a naval veteran of World War II, was a young congressman, a youthful star of the Senate, and vice president before he turned 40. He was a central figure in several of the signature moments of the Cold War, including the Alger Hiss affair and the Kitchen Debate with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He ran for president three times and won twice. He resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.

All three were Republicans, but both Republicans and Democrats have been willing to roll the dice.

Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton, had almost no experience before entering the White House, having served two years as governor of New Jersey. (Being a famous president of a famous university doesn't count, or else the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh would have served four terms in the White House, and we would all have been a lot better off.)

Then there was Wendell Willkie. In 1940 the Republicans nominated Willkie, a utility lawyer who never had served in public office. He has emerged as a folk hero in recent years and was lionized in Amity Shlaes's landmark new book, "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," which is destined to be found Tuesday morning under Christmas trees coast to coast. He was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, who at least had been a state senator (like Mr. Obama), assistant secretary of the Navy, and governor of New York before running for president.

Several times Americans have elected men of accomplishment to the White House, notably Eisenhower and Andrew Jackson, both former generals, who turned out to be better-than-average presidents, especially in the latest historical reckoning. But in all, five Civil War generals became president, and not one of them made a lasting mark on the presidency. One, Ulysses S. Grant, was destined to be remembered among the nation's worst chief executives.

Bill Clinton has many admirers today, but he surely remembers how he was pilloried in 1992 by his Republican rivals, who invaded the Clinton convention in New York with little stickers describing the Democratic presidential nominee as a failed governor of a small state. Mr. Clinton ran that year against President George H.W. Bush, a onetime businessman who had served in the House, as chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate years, chief American diplomat in China, director of Central Intelligence and, for eight years, vice president. If experience equaled electoral votes in 1992, Mrs. Clinton never would have been first lady.

Mr. Obama is fond of quoting Mr. Clinton's remarks from 1992, when he was clearly the loser in the experience derby: "The same old experience is irrelevant." That remark also could be put to good use by Mr. Clinton's wife, who in addition to seven years in the Senate has a lifetime of involvement in important social and political causes. Because by conventional measures, the most experienced Democratic candidate is Senator Biden, who has been in the Senate for more than a third of a century and who is chairman of the committee conventionally regarded as the most prestigious on Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations.

But Mr. Clinton is not aiming his fire at Mr. Biden, who has earned more respect in 12 months on the campaign trail than he did in 34 years in the Senate but who still remains in single digits in the polls. It is, of course, in Mr. Clinton's interest to question Mr. Obama's qualifications and to ask: "When is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?" Mr. Clinton, who during his administration devoured biographies of the 40 men who preceded him in the White House, is as good a historian of the presidency as anyone, and so he knows the answer is: Never.

But one man comes close. He served in a state legislature and then served a single term in the U.S. House. Oddly enough, he was elected to the White House from Illinois, Mr. Obama's home state. Look him up under Lincoln, Abraham. His experience was in his intellect and in his heart, and not on his resume.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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