Monday, March 10, 2008


Excerpts below from historian Stanley Kutler in Monday's Truthdig. Kutler is Emeritus Professor of Law at University of Wisconsin Law School:

The president’s experience did not spare us at two critical junctures in our history.James Buchanan, arguably our worst president, served in both the House and the Senate and had been secretary of state and minister to England—altogether a wealth of political experience. He was jokingly referred to as “the Old Public Functionary.” Yet he fiddled in Washington as the secession crisis left him paralyzed in mind and action, unable or unwilling to prevent the dissolution of the Union. Herbert Hoover came to the presidency in 1928 with the widest experience of anyone since the earliest days of the Republic, having a rich, diversified career in both government and the private sector. Those successful experiences notwithstanding, Hoover is best remembered for his failure to relieve individual suffering during the disaster of the Great Depression.

The meager experience of our most successful presidents stands in sharp contrast.Theodore Roosevelt had been New York’s police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy and a one-term governor of New York. He was vice president for all of six months. Woodrow Wilson, whose success is more problematic, served a two-year term as governor of New Jersey and seven years as president of Princeton and briefly taught at Wesleyan University, where he founded the debate team and coached football. Rather puny experience, at best.

William Howard Taft, who served the one term between TR and Wilson, had extensive, varied experience, such as serving as a local and federal appellate judge, directing the occupation of the Philippines and being secretary of war. Who remembers Taft? His one presidential term was filled with political missteps and policy disasters, resulting in the rupture of the Republican Party.

When Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency against Kennedy in 1960, Nixon emphasized his experience. But when reporters pressed Eisenhower for a statement on Nixon’s accomplishments, the president tartly replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” Greatly embittered, Nixon subsequently blamed Eisenhower’s lukewarm support for his narrow loss to Kennedy. Nixon desperately yearned for Eisenhower’s blessing; instead, he got shafted.

Prominent journalist Walter Lippmann famously dismissed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 as “a pleasant young man” with few qualifications. Abraham Lincoln, whose greatness is universally acknowledged, had one term in the House of Representatives. In that brief time, he notably challenged President James K. Polk to name the exact spot where Mexicans had attacked and killed Americans on American soil. Lincoln and FDR’s leadership qualities, like Washington’s, inspired the nation in perilous times: Lincoln carried the nation through the fiery trials of the Civil War and Roosevelt steered through the shoals of economic disaster. 


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