Experience Matters in a President

“I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said of Sen. John McCain’s five-years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. Clark, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama, recently slammed McCain’s experience and qualifications to be commander-in-chief.  

Although Obama distanced himself from Clark’s remarks and praised McCain’s sacrifice, Clark stood by his statement. This strategy allows Obama to be the good guy while his surrogates attack. 

Founding Father John Adams would be puzzled by Clark’s comments. He understood the supreme importance of electing a commander-in-chief with battlefield experience. That is why he nominated George Washington for the job in 1775. And he did so at the risk of his friendship with his less experienced buddy, Col. John Hancock.  

The colonies were at war, locked-down in Boston. America’s mishmash militia surrounded Boston’s countryside but were unable to drive the British out of town. They needed a leader with experience. As he stood before the Continental Congress in 1775, Adams cited Washington’s experience as a primary reason he should be commander-in-chief.  

Adams chose Washington over his pal, John Hancock, who expected Adams to nominate him. After all Hancock was from Boston, the hotspot of the moment. He was also the charismatic leader of the Sons of Liberty. Hancock was a more logical choice to direct a Yankee army than a Southerner like Washington. But there was a key difference. Although he was a colonel, Hancock had never served in battle. Washington had. 

Washington was one of only 30 soldiers from Virginia to survive a fierce battle in an earlier war. Washington knew the military backwards and forwards. He had been a surveyor, a leader of Virginia’s border control and a military diplomat. Washington had also served in Virginia’s legislative body. He brought an abundance of hard-knocks experience to the job of commander-in-chief.

Experience matters today. America is at war. McCain is the only candidate with direct experience in the U.S. military, something that cannot be ignored. His foreign policy experience was particularly evident when Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last December. It was McCain, not Obama, who gave the fastest most thorough response. The reason for such speed? His experience.

“If I were president of the United States, I would be on the phone right now, and I would be meeting with the National Security Council, and I would be seeing ways that we could restore order, or maintain order, or restore order, whichever is the case in Pakistan. I know the players, I know the individuals, and I know the best way to address this situation,” he said, after first expressing his condolences over Bhutto’s death. 

Contrasting that was the short 60-word statement Barack Obama initially issued. “She was a respected and resilient advocate for the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people,” he said. His response was highly appropriate, but not based on many years of foreign policy debates on the Hill. He gave a more thought-out response the next day but it didn’t equal McCain’s initial framing of the issue. 

McCain’s resume is loaded with experience, with 22 years in the Navy. He remarkably returned to flight status following five years as a POW. Starting out in the House, he then leaped into the U.S. Senate, serving more than 20 years. Obama has four years in the U.S. Senate. The experience section on his resume is short. The numbers don’t compare. 

The Adams formula still counts today. The next president’s experience, both the breadth and the depth of it, will matter when he takes that Constitutional oath and makes decisions from the Oval Office desk.  

Adams also understood the importance of another leadership quality. In addition to his experience, Adams cited Washington’s “universal character” as a reason for his nomination. The reaction of both men proved Adams’s point. Adams noticed a “sudden and sinking change of countenance” and “mortification” on Hancock’s face. Contrasting to that was Washington. Upon hearing the news, Washington darted from the room so the Continental Congress could openly discuss his nomination. Both men’s reactions revealed their character. Washington demonstrated modesty; Hancock vanity, proving the very reason for Adams’ choice.  

The ability to unite America during war time is essential no matter the era. Experience matters. The way candidates respond to news and events in the days to come will also reveal their character.