Today's Candidates Don't Measure Up to Roosevelt or Reagan

Michael Barone
|
Posted: Aug 18, 2016 4:45 PM
Today's Candidates Don't Measure Up to Roosevelt or Reagan

Donald Trump has just made changes, again, in his campaign's top leadership, shoving aside the seasoned Paul Manafort and installing Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon and veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway. He's obviously acting in response to his falling poll numbers nationally, in target states and even in some states that have been safely Republican in recent elections.

Choosing the right people for important jobs is one of the chief responsibilities of a president. History underlines this. It took a president as brilliant as Abraham Lincoln several years to find the generals -- Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman -- who would win the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt, in contrast, picked the right generals and admirals for the right jobs before or just after Pearl Harbor.

Roosevelt's astonishing skill for picking the right men and women for jobs he considered important was apparent also in his New Deal years. Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes brilliantly managed huge welfare and public works programs. Roosevelt's choices to build the Pentagon took just 18 months to finish what is still, 75 years later, the world's largest office building. Could anyone do that today?

Claims were made by multiple speakers at the Republican National Convention that Trump has a similar knack. Clearly it's important for a real estate developer to hire people who can get a building up on time and under budget and for a brand name vendor to hire good marketers. Reporters might ask those with knowledge of these businesses whether there's anything to the convention speakers' claims.

But Trump's choices to run his presidential campaign have not inspired confidence that he's another FDR. His mercurial first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, tweeted snarkily when details about the Ukrainian payments for his second, Manafort, were revealed. And if Trump's problem now is the indiscipline that has prompted him to make damaging statements that obscure news stories damaging to Hillary Clinton, it's not clear that hiring the head of the Trump-cheerleading Breitbart News is the solution. Perhaps Conway will offer better advice.

If Trump's personnel choices don't inspire confidence, neither do Clinton's. In her years as secretary of state and a presidential candidate, she has surrounded herself with a coterie of sycophants such as Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. They're utterly loyal, but maybe overly loyal. As revelations of their email traffic show, they lack good judgment and, above all, the ability to tell the principal things she doesn't want to but needs to hear.

Bill Clinton did not keep himself in such a cocoon; neither did the Bushes and the presidents who preceded them; neither did FDR. The work of the cocoon can be seen in what surely was a carefully scripted and rehearsed answer on the home-brew emails, which, once delivered on a Sunday talk show, drew "Pants-on-Fire" and "Four Pinocchio" ratings from liberal media fact-checkers. Competent staffers would not have told the candidate the answer would fly.

Franklin Roosevelt's skill at picking the right people made big government and war leadership look easier than they are. Both major-party nominees seem to fall in that category.

Both nominees also fit into another category, that of the oldest presidential candidates in American history. Trump turned 70 in June; Clinton will turn 69 in October. He would be the oldest presidential candidate ever elected, she would be the second-oldest, after Ronald Reagan.

That's of course a comforting precedent. But Reagan had a special gift for focusing on key issues and delegating lesser things to (mostly) talented subordinates. He also had unusual physical strength that kept him functioning competently even after suffering a serious gunshot wound.

Do Clinton or Trump have similar strengths? In his foreign policy speech Monday, Trump argued that Clinton lacks the judgment, temperament and moral character to be president, and "she also lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS and all the many adversaries we face."

His campaign points out that Clinton sustained injuries in a December 2012 fall that took weeks to recover from and that she has been keeping a light campaign schedule, with two- and three-day weekends off. Both candidates have doctors who say they're healthy. But the presidency has visibly aged the last three incumbents, elected at ages 46, 51 and 47.

History teaches, but it sometimes misleads. Roosevelt and Reagan had skills, not fully appreciated in their times, that made running a big government and being president in your 70s look easier than they actually are for most people. Is there any evidence that either Trump or Clinton is similarly gifted?