Nick Kristof is often dull, but when he’s on, he’s really on. And he’s really on today:
Looking at the 19 presidents since 1900, three of the greatest were among those with the fewest years in electoral politics. Teddy Roosevelt had been a governor for two years and vice president for six months; Woodrow Wilson, a governor for just two years; and Franklin Roosevelt, a governor for four years. None ever served in Congress.
Alternatively, look at the five presidents since 1900 with perhaps the most political experience when taking office: William McKinley, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. They had great technical skills — but not one was among our very greatest presidents.
The point is not that experience is pointless but that it needn’t be in politics to be useful. John McCain’s years as a P.O.W. gave him an understanding of torture and a moral authority to discuss it that no amount of Senate hearings ever could have conferred.
In the same way, Mr. Obama’s years as an antipoverty organizer give him insights into one of our greatest challenges: how to end cycles of poverty. That front-line experience is one reason Mr. Obama not only favors government spending programs, like early-childhood education, but also cultural initiatives like promoting responsible fatherhood.
Then there’s Mr. Obama’s grade-school years in Indonesia. Our most serious mistakes in foreign policy, from Vietnam to Iraq, have been a blindness to other people’s nationalism and an inability to see ourselves as others see us. Mr. Obama seems to have absorbed an intuitive sensitivity to that problem. For starters, he understood back in 2002 that American troops would not be greeted in Iraq with flowers.
There are reasons to support Hillary Clinton. If you think the Democratic party as it currently stands is insufficiently hawkish, for example, then by all means, she’s your candidate. But experience isn’t a useful criterion.