Obama, McCain, Bush, Age, Experience, and Wisdom

News at Home

Mr. Moss is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent books are A History of Russia. 2 vols. (2d ed., 2003-2005) and An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), both works published by Anthem Press (London). For a podcast interview about the latter book, click here. Click here to access his homepage.

On July 24, 2008, Senator Barack Obama, like many others before him, left a hand-written private prayer in a crack in Jerusalem’s Western [or Wailing] Wall.  Because of his celebrity, however, someone apparently pulled it out and made it public.  According to newspapers, one of its few sentences asked God for the wisdom to act correctly and justly. As inappropriate as it was to remove the prayer from the wall, it does offer an opportunity to examine Obama’s attitude toward wisdom, a virtue that the Bible’s book of Proverbs states is “better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared with it.”

On several earlier occasions, Obama indicated that he valued wisdom.  In March 2008, when asked what qualities he thought were important in a Supreme Court justice, he referred to former Chief Justice Earl Warren as an example of the type of person he would like to see on the highest court.  Obama said that Warren “had the wisdom to recognize that segregation was wrong less because of precise sociological effects and more so because it was immoral and stigmatized blacks.” Shortly before Obama’s July trip to the Middle East he stated that “Senator Hagel and Senator Reed may be coming with us. Look, they are both experts on foreign policy. They reflect, I think, a traditional bipartisan wisdom when it comes to foreign policy.  Neither of them are ideologues but try to get the facts right and make a determination about what’s best for U.S. interests.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989) defines wisdom as “the capacity for judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends.”  In her book The March of Folly (1984), historian Barbara Tuchman defined wisdom "as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information,” and she focused on four cases of unwise governmental policies from ancient times to the U. S. conduct of the Vietnam War.  She noted that amidst governments wisdom was “less operative and more frustrated than it should be.”  She asked, “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" In answer to her questions, she highlighted two reasons: 1) an “excess of power,” in the case of Vietnam in the hands of U. S. presidents; 2) “mental standstill or stagnation — the maintenance intact by rulers and policy makers of the ideas they started with,” leading to “persistence in error.” As we shall see, both of Tuchman’s reasons are also partial explanations for the folly of many of George W. Bush’s Iraqi policies.

In the campaign to date Obama has often spoken of the importance of the quality most associated with wisdom--good judgment.  In March 2008, he spoke in front of a group of U. S. admirals and generals who served under various presidents and endorsed him for president.  In his remarks he said: “How many times do we have to learn that tough talk is not a substitute for sound judgment? . . . The real Commander-in-Chief threshold doesn't have to do with years tallied up in Washington, it has to do with the judgment and vision that you will bring to the Oval Office. On the most important national security question since the Cold War, I am the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. This judgment was not about speeches, it was about whether or not the United States of America would go to war in Iraq.”

John McCain has also spoken about wisdom and judgment.  In May 2008, on TV’s “Saturday Night Live,”  the man who if elected would be the oldest president in history tried to put the best spin possible on his advanced years by saying, “I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and most importantly, the oldness necessary.’’ Although much that is said on the comedy program can not be taken too seriously, in other venues McCain continually touted his experience and suggested it had helped furnish him with better judgment and greater wisdom than that of the younger and less politically experienced Obama.  In May 2008, McCain spoke of Obama’s “very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues,” and added that “he does not have the knowledge, background, or judgment to lead this nation in these difficult and challenging times and I do.”  In July, the McCain campaign ran an ad stating: “Now that it's clear that the surge [a 2007 substantial increase of U.S. troops in Iraq] has succeeded and brought victory in Iraq within sight, Senator Obama [who was critical of the surge] can't quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment.”

Regardless of which candidate might possess better judgment, the debate about it and, at least implicitly, who would be the wiser candidate was a refreshing change from the two presidential elections in which George W. Bush participated.   In 2000 and 2004, one heard more about whom one would rather drink a beer with, Bush or one of his Democratic rivals, Al Gore or John Kerry—in 2000 there was actually a Sam Adams/Roper Starch poll that discovered that more people would rather have a beer with Bush than with Gore.  By 2008, a bumper sticker was available that said: “How Did That Whole Drink-A-Beer-With-Bush Plan Work Out For You? Vote Democrat!”

In retrospect we can see that the U.S. electorate was foolish not to pay more attention to such qualities as good judgment and wisdom in selecting a president in 2000 and 2004.  During his years in office, President Bush seldom displayed these traits.  As one academic observer noted in 2004, “Bush appears to rest his confidence in a few people whose judgment corresponds to his gut instincts.  He seems to be obsessive about being decisive, but willing to make hard and fast decisions on the basis of ideology more than evidence.” Around the same time another scholar observed that “there seems to be almost an absence of any analytical or deliberative process for mapping the problem or exploring alternatives or estimating consequences.” In his 2008 memoir, Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary, pointed to similar traits and noted that in deciding to go to war against Iraq in 2003 Bush downplayed "the possible unpleasant consequences of war--casualties, economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions."  During Bush's second term, McClellan claims that the president was insulating himself even more from what was really going on in Iraq and increasingly believed “his own spin."  Other observers, like David Halberstam in an August 2007 Vanity Fair article about Bush’s misuse of history, have commented on the reliance Bush places on his religious faith to help him make decisions.

One of the scholars most concerned with “political wisdom” during the twentieth century was the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).  His friend and biographer Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard and now a deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, discussed political wisdom in a 2007 New York Times Magazine article in which he looked back on Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003.  One of the Canadian’s conclusions was: “I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.”  He went on to say that “the attribute that underpins good judgment in politicians is a sense of reality. ‘What is called wisdom in statesmen,’ Berlin wrote, referring to figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, ‘is understanding rather than knowledge — some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.’ Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be. They must see Iraq — or anywhere else — as it is.”

Before writing her book, The March of Folly,  Tuchman had recounted the folly of  those who led the world into World War I in The Guns of August (1962).  One of the enthusiastic readers of her book was U.S. President John Kennedy. In Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy’s book about the Cuban Missile Crisis, RFK wrote about the effect of the book on his brother.  “A short time before, he [the president] had read Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August, and he talked about the miscalculations of the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French and the British. They somehow seemed to tumble into war, he said, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.” President Kennedy was determined to learn from history and not again foolishly “tumble into war” with the USSR.  By almost all accounts, he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis in a wise manner.  If Kennedy’s handling of the crisis was an example of circumspect decision-making, Bush’s handling of the Iraq invasion and initial occupation was the opposite.

In James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), he indicates some of the qualities needed for making wise decisions.  His book suggests that leaders should hear diverse and independent opinions and truly consider wide-ranging options. In the instances cited above, Kennedy did so, Bush did not. 

Although it is difficult to know exactly what processes Obama or McCain would follow in making crucial decisions, for example about going to war, we do have some indications. Obama has stressed his opposition to going to war with Iraq in the first place; McCain supported Bush’s decision and grossly underestimated its cost, both in terms of human lives and dollars.  In July 2008, he declared, "I know how to win wars. And if I'm elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory."  Although McCain does indeed have more political experience than Obama, a previous post on the History News Network by Stanley Kutler, after citing numerous historical examples, concluded that experience “alone it is no substitute for good judgment, a bold vision, an ability to articulate it and inspire a following, and a temperament and organization to translate vision into programs and policies.”  Age is also no guaranteeor of wisdom.

Judging from various accounts about Obama, he does seem to be even-tempered, a good listener, and someone who seeks out different opinions.  In answer to a query in Iowa in December 2007 about his possible vice-presidential choice should he be nominated, he was quoted as saying, “I want somebody who will tell me when they disagree with me. I don’t like having a lot of ‘yes’ people around me who are just telling me what I want to hear all the time. That’s part of what happened with George Bush. He surrounded himself with people who were of the same mind. As a consequence, once he started making mistakes on things like Iraq, they just kept on saying it was going OK, when it wasn’t. That’s a huge problem. That’s something that’s going to have to change.”  On July 27, 2008, on “Meet the Press,” Obama reiterated his statement that for a vice-presidential candidate he wanted someone who was independent minded and would tell him when he was wrong.  He also mentioned that he wanted a person with integrity and who shared his vision of where the country needed to go. The next day, McCain listed his most important criteria: “First, you want to make sure you have a candidate that's not going to burden the ticket. The second thing is, and I think it's the key criteria, is it someone who shares your principles, your values, your philosophy and your priorities?”  In short, it seems likely that, if elected, Obama’s decision-making process in times of crisis would resemble more that of John Kennedy facing the threat of missiles in Cuba than George Bush on the eve of the Iraq war, when he falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.  With McCain, it seemed harder to predict.

Whether either Obama or McCain would indeed have the wisdom to be open minded and pragmatic in times of crisis remains to be seen.  But at least the issues of decision-making ability, judgment, and wisdom are being raised, and all of them are more important than “Who would you rather drink a beer with?”               

comments powered by Disqus