Beverly Gage: Do Rookies Make Good Presidents?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Beverly Gage: Gage is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror, due in February. She teaches U.S. history at Yale University.]

For 10 exhausting months, Americans worried that Barack Obama might be too inexperienced to serve as President. On Nov. 4, a majority of voters decided that he is in fact"ready to lead"--or at least that he had better be. This suggests that Americans know their history. When it comes to presidential success, experience isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Does Experience Matter in a President?

Given the recent Sturm und Drang over the experience question, one might imagine that American Presidents have mostly followed the Johnson/Nixon model, clawing their way from House to Senate to the vice presidency before landing in the Oval Office. In truth, American presidential politics has often been a rookie's game. Some presidential newcomers have hit the ball out of the park, delivering moments of true political greatness. (Think Abraham Lincoln.) Others have offered up inning after inning of rookie mistakes.

As a group, White House rookies tend to fall into three categories. First come the military heroes--Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower--who ventured a leap into electoral politics only to produce lackluster administrations. (The great exception is George Washington, whose success in office remains uncontested but whose"rookie" status could hardly be helped.)

Next come the technocrats like William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover, who both arrived with long résumés of appointed posts but virtually no electoral experience. This category might also include Jimmy Carter, who despite several years in the Georgia legislature and governor's office maintained an essentially bureaucratic outlook toward White House affairs. All three proved wanting as popular leaders, unable to rally mass support for their programs. All three were limited to a single term.

In the last category are the charismatic youngsters: 42-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy, 46-year-old Bill Clinton. Of our many presidential rookies, they have been among the most ambitious, championing transformative programs for national change. They have also marked the presidency with their outsize personal traits: Roosevelt's masculine bluster, Kennedy's legendary charm, Clinton's much discussed indiscretions....

[HNN Editor: Gage goes on to compare Obama with Abraham Lincoln, who'd served in the Ill. state legislature and served a single term as a member of Congress, and Woodrow Wilson, who served just two years as NJ governor before election as president. She thinks the Wilson example may be the most relevant.]

Like Obama, Wilson had spent his adult life immersed in university politics. Wilson's essays on American history feature the voice of a professor, not a machine candidate. Obama is himself something of a Wilsonian progressive, a man who puts his faith in transparency and voluntarism rather than New Deal--style interest-group wrangling. He also maintains some of Wilson's reserved and intellectual approach to managing the national welfare....

Read entire article at Time Magazine

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James W Loewen - 11/15/2008

There is no real content in this short article. No standards of historical proof or evidence. For example, why contrast Clinton's "indiscretions" with JFK's "charm?" JFK's indiscretions were legendary and compulsive. Clinton has a lot of charm, too, which is often credited with causing him to win (and Gore to lose) running for office on the same principles.
On what basis does the author say Eisenhower's first term was "lackluster?" Or Grant's (whose assessment has been afflicted by historians who wrote during the Nadir of race relations)?
This is mere fluff.