February 14th, 2008

white house

The experience thing

Bumped up from a comment to someone else's entry, asking to what extent the previous political experience of US presidential candidates has correlated with their ability to do the job:

WikiPedia has a handy ranking of all US presidents which may not precisely match your own view but does reflect a certain consensus.

The best five presidents, according to this ranking, were:
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By contrast, the worst five according to this ranking were:
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It is striking how similar the careers of the best (Lincoln) and the worst (Harding) are. Indeed, if you had to choose betwen the two of them based purely on political experience, you would probably choose Harding, who had six years on Capitol Hill compared to Lincoln's two, and had been a state governor to boot. The most extensive political CV of these ten, perhaps of any president (I haven't gone into the others in depth) is Buchanan's, with a decade in each house on Capitol Hill and a term as Secretary of State, which still leaves him ranked as worse than any other President bar Harding.

This shouldn't really be surprising. Once you've reached a certain level of political activity, the length of your CV reflects your age much more than your ability. (Indeed, that is probably true in any walk of life.) In addition, of course, it's not just what you have done but how you have done it: Lincoln's unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 1858 was a far more impressive affair than anything Harding ever did in his life. And finally, for me, and I suspect for many people, most of the important lessons I have learned came relatively early in my career and increasingly long ago. But you won't see that on my CV.