Hillary Clinton's curious take on the meaning of `experience"

November 23, 2007|By Steve Chapman

KNOXVILLE, IOWA -- Spending a day following Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the campaign trail, I was not surprised to hear her quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, any more than I've been surprised when she has invoked other Democrats like Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy. But when she began talking about the importance of electing a president with experience, she brought to mind a very different president.

In her speech here this week, Mrs. Clinton said that "there is one job we can't afford on-the-job training for: That is the job of our next president. That could be the costliest job training in history." She went on: "We need a president who understands the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face and has the strength and experience to address them from Day One."

If I were Sen. Barack Obama or John Edwards, I might have taken offense. But I might have taken even greater offense if I were George H.W. Bush. In 1992, after he lost his re-election bid, Mr. Bush probably never expected Bill Clinton's wife would someday be running for president while delivering lines seemingly inspired by his criticisms of Bill Clinton.

Back then, Mr. Bush was the one with the long years of service in government - as a congressman, ambassador, CIA director and vice president. The candidate named Clinton was the one with the comparatively modest resume, consisting mostly of 12 years as governor of a small state.

So Republicans warned that inexperience could be calamitous. "I ask you to close your eyes and imagine in a crisis situation an American leader totally without experience, completely untested, about whom we know very little, if you get down to it," Mr. Bush implored his listeners.

The Clinton campaign, of course, had a different view. "If they're such whizzes on foreign policy," scoffed running mate Al Gore, "why is Saddam Hussein thumbing his nose at the entire world, claiming victory and still in power?"

Later in the week, Hillary Clinton was abandoning the previous day's subtlety. "Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face."

As a summary of Mr. Obama's experience, that's the equivalent of saying, "Now voters will decide whether redecorating the White House prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face."

By stressing this issue, Mrs. Clinton inadvertently raises the question of whether her experience really measures up to the claims. On the campaign trail, she brags that she has "35 years of experience" - which suggests that she expects to get credit not only for her time as first lady of the United States but also for her time as first lady of Arkansas, not to mention her time practicing law in Little Rock.

Mrs. Clinton doesn't mention that she has just under seven years of experience in elective office - four fewer than Mr. Obama.

In 1992, of course, Bill Clinton, then a youthful 46, took the view that experience was overrated. He had a point: Richard Nixon was a failure despite years in high office in Washington, while Ronald Reagan was a success even though his entire political resume consisted of two terms as a governor. By the time Mr. Clinton completed his presidency, most Democrats would have said he proved that fresh ideas trump establishment credentials.

Over the last 15 years, however, Hillary Clinton has acquired a profound new respect for the value of Washington experience.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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