- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008


We antique observers of presidential campaigns — this writer cast his first vote for Adlai E. Stevenson in 1956 and turned 73 in July — know one thing about the claim of candidates that they will be ready for the Oval Office on “Day One.” It is a dangerous joke.

When Ted Kennedy recently and mockingly echoed Hillary Clinton’s claim to that effect as he endorsed Barack Obama, he was perhaps suffering from a senior moment about his own brother’s early days in office.

Those of us who recall John F. Kennedy’s 1961 apprenticeship at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. recall that he immediately became bogged down in an esoteric parliamentary struggle with the very conservative chairman of the House Rules Committee, Judge Howard Smith of Virginia — this as an indispensable preliminary to the ragged consideration of his domestic agenda. And that a few months later, in Vienna, he confessed ruefully to James Reston of the New York Times that Nikita Khruschchev had the better of him at the premature summit, whose sequel was the Berlin crisis. Further, he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were trying to quiet, not promote, Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights program.

John Kennedy was, however, a gifted and genial figure and a quick study. By October 1962, his wise management of the mortally dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis — and the irenic address at American University the following summer, embodying his view of its lessons — showed he was approaching political mastery. But it had been a rude, rocky apprenticeship.

The truth is that slow learning from “Day One” has been the all but universal experience, even of the greatest presidents. Abraham Lincoln, whose Washington experience consisted of one House term, was too wise to make extravagant boasts about Day One. He was forced by the March inauguration date to sit out the agonizing “secession winter,” wondering how to repair the disintegrating Union and deal with the issue that had precipitated its disintegration. It was not until two years (and many failed generals) later that he saw that emancipation was the precondition of success. By then he had presumably forgotten, and certainly set aside, the solution he had offered two years earlier: a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the institution of slavery where it had historically existed.

And Franklin D. Roosevelt in the next century? His advent in 1933 was also handicapped — the last to be so — by the March inauguration date. With a quarter of the nation’s work force on the streets and in the bread lines, he was surrounded by a noted “brain trust” of advisers.

But it was a motley collection of very different brains, with very different ideas. For instance, Raymond Moley, his principal speechwriter, was a holdover from Uncle Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive movement, of distinctly conservative views. Rexford Tugwell, whose economic advice was thought to be paramount, was a certifiable radical. And FDR himself? As J.M. Keynes was soon to find, the bold new president was a man of deeply unbold, orthodox, indeed classical, fiscal views. His trump card was a willingness to try almost anything, or perhaps more important, to be seen trying anything.

When Sen. Hillary Clinton advertises her readiness for “Day One”— or more particularly, when her supportive husband endorses the claim — they both must have forgotten that soon after Jan. 20, 1993, the headline news here was Bill Clinton’s struggle with Sens. Sam Nunn and Bob Dole over homosexual rights in the military — a struggle muddled, or finessed, by “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Meanwhile he had stumbled through three candidates for U. S. attorney general.

It is tempting to chuckle when the “Day One” claim echoes through the land. But there may be a less amusing point. The presidency has never been easy, and many occupants (including the latest) have assured us there is no way to prepare for it. But with the decay of American parties, the odds against hitting the ground running lengthen.

What passes now as a vetting system for candidates is tele-political flimflam, from which peer judgment has all but vanished. We must rely on guesswork as to who can or can’t cope with the challenges of the Oval Office, early or late. It is a gamble with unknowns and unknowables. The result is all we have a right to expect and no more.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. was associate editor and editorial pages editor of the Washington Star and later a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. His novel “Lions at Lamb House,” about Sigmund Freud and Henry James, was published in September.

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