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The Old Man and the Presidency, Part 2

Jay Hogan, in the Comments section on my previous post, points out that William McKinley and Franklin Roosevelt both died early on in their second and fourth terms respectively, leaving the presidency to newly minted vice presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, in office only six months, and Harry Truman, in office less than three.

Neither had much in the way of foreign-policy experience when he inherited the presidency. TR had been assistant secretary of the navy for a year and Truman a United States Senator who rose to prominence investigating waste in the World War II defense program. Being briefly vice president didn’t add to their résumés much, as in those days vice presidents were the ultimate Washington nonentities. (“There once were two brothers. When they grew up, one went to sea and the other became vice president. Neither was ever heard of again.”)

But both Roosevelt and Truman became very successful foreign-policy presidents. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War and Harry Truman crafted the strategy that eventually led to victory in the Cold War.

This reveals a dirty little secret about foreign policy: experience actually counts for very little. It’s a bit like the game of chess. Anyone can learn the rules of the game in ten minutes flat. But if they don’t have the right instincts for the game they will never be any good at it no matter how much they play. If they do, they will become very good immediately. (An anecdote: Stephen Sondheim was not only taught how to write musicals by Oscar Hammerstein II, he was also taught to play chess by him when he was about 12 years old. Hammerstein was an avid and excellent game player, very aggressive, and cut kids no slack whatever. Sondheim beat him in the second chess game they played.)

Neither President Carter nor President Reagan had any foreign policy experience. Carter made an utter hash of it and Reagan a triumph. To be sure, Reagan had luck on his side more than Carter but, as Louis Pasteur explained, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”


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