ImageThe waggish comment that second marriages represent the triumph of hope over experience was, I believe, first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is no denying its correctness, as many a twice-married person will affirm.

The principle is also true in politics. A second candidate spouting a certain campaign-line is sometimes chosen in the hope that he will be a better president than a previous peddler of that line. Every presidency is different, of course, because it occurs in a unique time. Conditions are never the same, and sometimes are vastly different. But flawed policy is still flawed policy.

The two Democratic candidates for the presidency –Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton – have defined their candidacies precisely by the words Hope and Experience. Mr. Obama is all about “hope”. He has even written a typical candidate’s autobiography entitled, The Audacity of Hope. (Full disclosure: haven’t read it; don’t plan to.) The hope to which he truly alludes (one imagines) is that he can be elected president on a promise of “change” which he hasn’t really defined (and hopes no one will ask about). That, indeed, would be audacious hope.

On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton is battling furiously with Mr. Obama and the media to define herself as the candidate of “experience”. She makes much of her “thirty-five years of experience” as a qualification for the nation’s highest office. Certainly she has lived long enough to have that work-experience. But doing what, exactly? The chronology of her career is a matter of public record. As nearly as I can make it out, it runs thus –

 

1947

 Born

1965-‘69

Undergraduate at Wellesley College

1969

First student to speak at a Wellesley commencement

1973

 Graduated Yale Law School; started as congressional lawyer

1975

 Married Bill Clinton, moved to Arkansas

1976

Joined Rose Law Firm as associate

1979-’92

Partner at Rose Law Firm

1979-’81

Arkansas First Lady

1983-’92

Arkansas First Lady

1979-’92

Children’s advocacy; on Walmart Board and other corporate boards

1993-’01

First Lady of USA

2001-present

Junior U. S. Senator from New York

 

Mrs. Clinton was listed as one of the 100 “most influential lawyers” in the USA in 1988 and 1991. President Clinton appointed her in 1993 to chair a commission to design a government health care system, but her plan failed to win congressional passage. In 1997, she helped establish the State Children’s Health Insurance Fund and the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

In 1996 she became the only First Lady in history to be subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, when she was called to testify in the Whitewater fraud case. (She was never charged in this case or in any of the other legal controversies during her husband’s presidency.)

As Senator from New York, she has supported Mr. Bush on some foreign policy issues, including the Iraq War Resolution of 2002. She later opposed the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war and voted against several Bush judicial appointees. She and Mr. Obama are rated as the most liberal members of the U. S. Senate.

No doubt I shall be much castigated for unfairly summarizing Mrs. Clinton’s record, or for glossing over her (arguably controversial) work in formulating new legal policy for children’s advocacy, or for questioning whether her resume really prepares her for the Oval Office. My conclusions are fair game, but it seems legitimate to examine some of her “accomplishments”.

The “most influential lawyer” appellation invites particular attention. Some of my female colleagues proudly cited this during the 1992 Clinton campaign. They were outraged when I noted that “influential” is not a synonym for “competent” or “skillful”.

Why was Mrs. Clinton so “influential”? Because she was married to the governor of Arkansas while practicing law in that state. That fact surely steered lucrative cases to the Rose Law Firm. Is it a coincidence that she was named Rose Law Partner in 1979 (at age 32)? This was the same year when Mr. Clinton first became governor. Pillow talk with the guv made her one of Rose Law’s hottest properties. (Remember, a law practice is, first of all, a business.)

By pointing this out I do not imply that dishonest dealing was necessarily involved in her work – although the Whitewater land deal certainly had an unpleasant smell. But there can be no doubt that important clients who wished to curry influence at the state level were well advised to bring their law-business to the firm where the governor’s wife was a partner. This was a new twist of the “good old boy” connection. A child can see that it is a fundamental conflict of interest.

Mrs. Clinton says her “participation” in important foreign policy decisions during her husband’s presidency have prepared her to lead “from Day One”. We have only her say-so on this, however. The Clintons have so far refused to release documents that might clarify her exact role at various times. Keeping these records under wraps allows her to go about claiming “influence” (there’s that word again) and “experience” in high-level decisions without fear of contradiction. It is the presidential version of “dead men tell no tales”. Sealed documents are as silent as the grave.

It is an irony of history that both Mr. Obama’s candidacy and Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy represent a kind of “second marriage” for the country: Mr. Obama’s, because he is promising the same undefined “change” that Bill Clinton won on in 1992; Mrs. Clinton’s, because she implies that her “experience” will make her a smarter, tougher, more adroit, more sensitive, better behaved female version of Bill. (And with better hair and teeth.) Maybe the country will discover what “change” the Big O has in mind before November, and maybe it won’t. Maybe the truth will emerge on exactly what role Hillary played – and at what level – in Bill’s Administration. But maybe not. History might pivot on what we learn, and when.

To be sure, John McCain carries his own baggage. (Indeed, last summer he was doing so, literally, when his campaign looked ready to tank.) He’s not perfect (can any politician be so?), but he will be a known quantity. I don’t like everything about Mr. McCain’s policies. What I do like is that I’m pretty sure I’m seeing the real guy – not some veiled agent of “hope”, or some claimant to phantom “experience”. We know where he has been and what he has done.

Being president is a tough job. From here, it looks like Mr. McCain is a pretty tough customer. He doesn’t mind answering questions, he tells it straight, and he’s no dummy. We could do worse. In November, voters in those booths will have to decide if they’re ready to gamble on a “second marriage” or not. I hope not. Mr. McCain looks like the fresh start we really need.