Our odd view of politics - help wanted; no experience preferred

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the trial of Andrew Johnson. Johnson, a successful tailor, was not cut out to be president.
The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the trial of Andrew Johnson. Johnson, a successful tailor, was not cut out to be president.

The New York Times, in a report last week on the then-concluding race for Montana’s lone congressional seat, noted how the Republican candidate and eventual winner, Greg Gianforte, aligned himself with our president.

“While candidates in recent special elections in Kansas and Georgia have played down connections to Mr. Trump,” Julie Terkewitz wrote, “Mr. Gianforte has hewed particularly close to the president’s narrative: He promotes his outsider status (he has never held office) and his business acumen ...

“The similarities have struck a chord with Montanans. ‘I’m voting for Greg. Period,’ Nancy Dehler, 69, said in a recent interview. ‘He’s outspoken. He’s not a politician. And he’s a successful businessman.’”

Always a theme among discontented voters, the adulation of candidates who are “not a politician” has perhaps never been stronger, underscored by the election last November of a president who had never served a day as so much as a small-town selectman.

I’ve spent most of my journalistic career covering, talking to and writing about politicians – and people in lots of other lines of work. I’m as puzzled as ever about the disdain for experience that seems to target politics more than any other field.

A leading hospitality chain ran an ad campaign a few years ago that featured a tagline that went something like this, as an actor prepared for surgery: “No, I’m not a doctor, but I did stay an a Holiday Inn Express last night.” I’m pretty sure none of would want to go into an operating room with the person holding a scalpel boasting of having no experience as a surgeon. I know nothing at all about how an engine works. It would be foolhardy to hire me to fix your ailing car.

History should give us pause in welcoming successful businessmen to the White House.

Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was a successful agribusinessman in Georgia; although a man of character who has excelled as a former president, his presidency was mediocre at best.

Warren G. Harding, a Republican, is memorable mostly for being remembered for so little. As a writer put it in The Hill last year, “Harding was very successful in business but is consistently rated as one of the worst presidents, so one of the most successful businessmen was a conspicuous failure as president.” Andrew Johnson was a successful tailor but clearly was not cut out to be president.

Conversely, Harry S. Truman, a business failure, emerged as one of our most successful presidents.

Here in North Carolina, we’ve benefitted from outstanding leadership of adroit politicians like Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford. Jim Martin, who as John Hood’s excellent recent biography pointed out was a reluctant politician, was nonetheless a skilled one who helped craft the modern Tar Heel Republican Party.

I’m no fan of most of state Senate leader Phil Berger’s policies, but his political skills have brought victory after victory for those who support them.

Bill Bell, who’s not seeking another term as mayor, has been a skilled and esteemed political practioner in Durham for more than three decades.

Have there been mediocre, even odious, career politicians? Sure. Richard Nixon, who helicoptered away from the White House in disgrace, leaps to mind. But even that is complicated. His paranoia brought him down, but his political dexterity recast the Republican Party, re-opened relations with Communist China and birthed the Environmental Protection Assocation, among other feats.

Maybe I’m empathetic because the profession from which I’m about to retire is often held in low public regard, too. But all things being equal, I’d like to have the challenging craft of politics undertaken at the highest level by people who have learned the trade through experience.