Is experience overhyped as White House qualifier?

It is customary when a presumed candidate has chosen his running mate to look at historical precedents for the selection. An obvious one is: Who was his closest rival in the primaries?

Sen. John Kerry isn't the first to choose the one who ran closest to him. Ronald Reagan in 1980 chose George Bush, who'd attacked his "voodoo economics." He made the choice in the face of a concerted drive led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to select ex-President Gerald Ford. Sen. John Kennedy in 1960 chose Sen. Lyndon Johnson, ardently opposed by most Kennedy supporters. Other winning tickets with former rivals were Hoover-Curtis in 1928, and Roosevelt-Garner in 1932.

In choosing Sen. John Edwards, Senator Kerry opted for more charisma and less experience, more South and less Midwest, more youth and less wartime service. But it's likely that the outcome of this election will be driven by events domestic and foreign that are unfathomable at this point.

History teaches that when times are good, a sense of economic security usually ensures the reelection of the incumbent. But this year a sense of economic security remains shaky, and personal and national security have become a possibly deciding factor for many undecided and Independent voters. And if anything is unknowable today, it is how safe we will feel come November.

The massive security preparations for the political conventions in New York and Boston are an indication of the prevailing sense of unease around the country. Iraq remains a question mark. The creation of an interim government has been successfully carried off, but an election must still be held by January against the background of a continuing insurgency.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a radio interview that if the US pulls off an election in December or January of 2005 as it's trying to do, it will be one of the more monumental occurrences in the Middle East in several hundred years. He's right. And that's why the identity of a running mate makes for interesting dinner conversation but provides little clue to what will happen on Nov. 2.

When Kerry announced Senator Edwards as his running mate, the Republican National Committee was ready with a 26-page document stressing Edwards' lack of experience. The Democrats were ready with a response that President Bush had no national experience when he came to Washington. It may be that too much is made of experience as a qualification for the White House. I was left thinking about this by a letter in The Washington Post from Thomas Champion of Somerville, Mass. He noted that if presidents were chosen on the basis of experience, then the savvy Richard Nixon would surely have beaten a callow John Kennedy in 1960.

This isn't to say that experience in governing doesn't count. Of the 42 men elected president, the largest single group - 17 - had served as governors. They include James Polk, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the incumbent, George Bush.

Fourteen presidents served as vice presidents, including Martin Van Buren, Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush.

But the next-largest group was military leaders with government experience of a rather specialized sort. There were 10 of them, including Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, and Dwight Eisenhower. Their appeal was an ability to inspire confidence in their leadership qualities.

But if voters had chosen predominantly on the basis of experience, we might've missed Harry Truman, a failed haberdasher chosen for a political career by the Kansas City political machine. And we might've missed Abe Lincoln, a state legislator, one-term congressman and, if you please, a trial lawyer, like John Edwards.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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