THE BYZANTINE NATURE OF WASHINGTON POLITICS….Brad DeLong says that America is like the Ottoman Empire and the White House is like the Topkapi Palace. Or something.
Actually, I’m not quite sure what he’s saying, but he definitely thinks we ought to figure out a way to elect someone other than an unknown governor as president. That’s always seemed like a reasonable goal to me, but on the other hand I’ve also wondered whether we really do any worse than all those parliamentary systems in Europe where the prime minister is necessarily someone with loads of previous central government experience.
I really don’t know the answer to that. But for what it’s worth, here’s one piece of data: the consensus best presidents of the 20th century were probably Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan ? and Truman was the only one of the bunch with any real previous Washington experience. The consensus worst are probably Harding, Hoover, Nixon, and Carter, and three out of four of them had considerable Washington experience. So it’s a tricky question, isn’t it?
UPDATE: Several readers have written to point out that both Roosevelts had Washington experience as assistant secretary of the Navy, and Eisenhower, while he had no political experience, did have lots of international experience (the whole D-Day thing) and was well acquainted with Washington politics from his military experience. I was primarily thinking of direct, high level political experience (mainly Congress or a cabinet position), but these are fair comments. I wasn’t trying to pigeonhole people to make a point, so y’all can make up your own minds on the question of what counts as national experience.
As for the rankings of the presidents, they obviously don’t reflect my own preferences (Reagan?!), but I think they’re a pretty fair summary of consensus opinion. For further discussion of presidential rankings, here’s an interesting document that shows various rankings over the years by different groups, and concludes that rankings have been remarkably stable. The least stable, of course, are recent presidents.