Maybe Bill Clinton's right, about this: nothing can fully prepare you for being president. But a candidate's experience and character may help predict how he or she will wield all that power. And the experiences of past presidents may tell us something about the current contenders.
You can see why my personal hero, George Washington, was the only candidate unanimously chosen by the Electoral College. He served with selfless courage as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. His fairness in presiding over the Constitutional Convention brought together bitterly contending interests. And he was not just one of the country's biggest landowners but also a businessman and scientific farmer. That Washington's qualities are not more highly regarded today says much about our time, none of it good.
The man generally acclaimed America's greatest president had no comparable experience. Abraham Lincoln was a failed businessman, a prairie lawyer for railroads and river barges, and a one-term member of Congress. But he showed that a man can be more than his resume. Lincoln had convictions. He combined homespun humor with rhetorical grandeur. And as seen in Doris Kearns Goodwin's terrific new book Team of Rivals, Lincoln could stifle his ego and embrace his foes.
Among other presidents, Woodrow Wilson was an academic whose messianic vision and diplomatic naivete helped wreck Europe after World War I. Warren G. Harding looked and sounded the part but was a lightweight who presided over the Teapot Dome oil reserve scandal. Franklin Roosevelt was an indifferent student whose autocratic noblesse oblige brought us out of the Great Depression -- or brought us socialism; Democrats and Republicans still debate that one. Roosevelt also helped win World War II, but considered himself so indispensable that he ran for a fourth term though gravely ill, refused to confide in Vice President Harry Truman even about the atomic bomb, and arguably handed the Soviets Eastern Europe at Yalta. Truman, on the other hand, was dismissed as a bumbling bumpkin. Today most historians see him differently.
Which brings us to John McCain and Barack Obama.
John McCain, like Jack Kennedy, was the reluctant scion of a powerful family who surprised many by displaying incredible devotion and fortitude in wartime, though retired General Wesley Clark says "getting shot down in a plane" doesn't qualify McCain to be president.
Barack Obama, as he wrote in Dreams from My Father, had to forge an identity from a welter of family, religious and racial confusion. Some say this made him compassionate and led to his work as a Chicago community organizer. Others say it made him calculating.
Obama, a former law professor and state lawmaker, has served less than one term in the U.S. Senate. McCain has served 26 years in the House and Senate. By forging bi-partisan coalitions, he gave us McCain- Feingold campaign finance reform, the McCain- Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, the defeated Kennedy-McCain immigration bill and much else. Admirers call him a maverick. Conservatives call him a turncoat. Obama calls McCain part of the Washington problem.