Experience and Character

Published September 16, 2008


There is a lot of discussion these days about Sarah Palin and her qualifications to be Vice President. The fair-minded skeptics are represented by writers like David Brooks; he argues that good governance requires acquired skills and, most of all, prudence. And prudence, in turn, is acquired through experience.

Over the years my own views have evolved somewhat away from David’s. I still believe possessing experience is better than not. But experience is not itself the sine qua non for success in a national leader, and inexperience is not necessarily a big drawback.

In my estimation, experience matters less than character and temperament in selecting a president. Here I define character and temperament fairly broadly, having to do not only with honesty and integrity (which are crucial), but one’s disposition and mind-set, equanimity and self-possession, courage and calmness, a lack of pettiness and resentment, the mix of steadfastness and flexibility, and the willingness to re-assess one’s own decisions in light of evidence.

It involves the capacity to put oneself in the place of others and marshal their talents, absorbing new information and acting wisely on incomplete information, the ability to discern the currents of history and shape them in a constructive way, and the capacity to understand, and act on, the great moral issues of an era. This list, while long, is not itself exhaustive. But it does touch on the qualities that can be vital to leadership.

It’s very hard to know in advance which leaders will possess these (and other) traits, or even what the best training ground to learn them might be. One would have thought that based on their experience, Lincoln would have been, at best, an average President (he turned out to be our greatest one), and Madison, the “father of the Constitution” and one of our most impressive founders, would have been in the top rank of presidents (he is not). One would have thought Lyndon Johnson would excel, and Harry Truman would fail. Yet the opposite happened. Ulysses Grant was able to win a war, but he couldn’t run an Administration. As governor, Ronald Reagan had very little national security experience – but it turned out that his instincts and insights were more correct than Henry Kissinger’s when it came to the matter of détente and, more broadly, the strength of the West in its struggle against Soviet Communism.

Joseph Biden has a huge amount of national security experience–but as I tried to demonstrate here, his judgment has been consistently wrong. I would argue the same about Obama; his inexperience is a legitimate issue, as it is with Palin; but Obama’s philosophy, stances on policy, and decisions in office worry me a good deal more. To put it another way: one’s judgment, attitudes, and world view matter more than experience. So does executive temperament, which is something quite different than experience.

The truth is that most people, including those serving in government, didn’t know nearly enough about al Qaeda before the September 11th attacks or the dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the invasion by Russia to make an immediate decision about what to do. What often matters isn’t prior knowledge; it’s what you do once you are briefed by national security experts.

Too often we speak with certitude about what we should look for in a leader. The truth is that the qualities we want are often hard to discern in a person in advance; that some inexperienced people possess them and some experienced people don’t; and that different times require different traits. For example, the qualities needed in times of war are less important in times of peace and tranquility.

It gets even more complicated. When President Bush stuck with the wrong plan in Iraq for too long, he was castigated for being stubborn and polarizing. But because he was right in championing the surge in the face of enormous opposition, he now looks principled and gutsy. The qualities in the man were the same; what is different is the outcome. If you are successful, weaknesses transmute into strengths, and vice-versa.

Another example: Ronald Reagan’s innate optimism looked to be out of touch to many people during the recession of 1981-1982; when the economy was going gang-busters in 1984, “Morning in America” had enormous appeal. The truth is that results are what matter most. If things are going well, the qualities we see in our leaders almost by definition are worthy of praise – and if things are going poorly, the qualities we see in our leaders are almost by definition ones we tire of.

People on all sides have weighed in with assurance about how qualified Sarah Palin is and how successful a Vice President she would be. But the truth is, we don’t really know. In government and in most of life, we have to act on incomplete information. When it comes to Governor Palin, it’s certainly fair to base our judgment on the available evidence, which includes her record, her philosophical orientation, and her character and temperament. But our judgment about her, and to varying degrees about others, should be preliminary. Even though we speak as if it were otherwise, there is no ready-made template we can reach for in determining how effective a person will be once they are thrust with the duties and burdens of high office. It is among life’s unknowables–and one of the things that makes the political life of a great nation interesting and unpredictable.

UPDATE: I want to clear up what I think is an unfair charge by David in the column I write about above.

Brooks claims that he would have more sympathy for the view that the nation needs uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land “if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice. And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in the first term, it made Bush inept at governance.”

To say that if the Bush administration was anything–anything!–it was built on an “anti-establishment attitude” is false and based on a caricature. The truth is that in the first term the Administration was filled with many establishment figures, including, for starters, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Rice. Who exactly were the first term anti-establishment figures David has in mind?

Second, the Bush Administration was fairly efficient in the first term. It executed many policies well, which helps explain why the President won reelection. The bi-partisan Medicare prescription drug plan, for example, was an enormously complicated one, and it was implemented with tremendous efficiency. The bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act, the most important education legislation in generations, while far from perfect, has still been an important step forward in education policy. The quality of the judges and justices appointed by President Bush are first rate. The economic policies he put in place in the aftermath of the recession he inherited and the attacks on 9/11, which dealt a tremendous jolt to the economy, were right and wise. The President’s decision on embryonic stem cells, which was extremely controversial, has been vindicated. The Proliferation Security Initiative is an outstanding achievement, as are the trade agreements that were initiative and completed. So was the President’s global AIDS initiative and the Patriot Act. I could go on, but won’t. Suffice it to say that these are impressive achievements and subvert David’s claim of “inept governance.”

Third, the main “competence” problem of
the Bush Administration was Iraq–and arguably the main problem here was that the President deferred too much to experienced hands from both the civilian and military realm, who turned out to be wrong.

If anything, it was President Bush standing up to the “establishment”–meaning the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Generals Casey and Abizaid–which is responsible for the success we’ve seen in the form of the surge. The Petraeus approach was the one that shook the system and challenged prevailing assumptions.

David is among the brightest writers around, and I’ve defended him against some of his more malicious critics. But in this instance, his anti-Bush assertion doesn’t correspond to reality.

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