History shows experience does not guarantee success in the White House

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In campaign literature and speeches, each of the three leading presidential candidates has trumpeted the experience that makes him or her best suited for the job.

A biography on Sen. John McCain's campaign Web site proclaims his "remarkable record of leadership and service." Sen. Barack Obama's Web site describes the "rich and varied experiences" of his life. Sen. Hillary Clinton has spoken of her "35 years of change" and told supporters, "We need a president who understands the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face and has the strength and experience to address them from day one."

But history shows that there is no clear correlation between experience in elected office and presidential success.

"It's not just how much experience they had, but where and how they got that experience," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and an expert in presidential history.

For example, few presidents can boast of a resume as impressive as that of James Buchanan. He spent five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and a decade in the Senate; he was minister to Great Britain and secretary of state. Yet by all accounts, he was a terrible president, unable to quell divisions between the North and South that led to the Civil War.

In contrast, Abraham Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer whose entire experience in public office consisted of eight years in the Illinois Legislature and one term in the U.S. House, is considered one of the greatest presidents.

"[He] was just really superb at understanding the crisis of the time and understanding how to get along with people," Goucher College history professor Jean Harvey Baker said.

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