Guilty of Experience

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In 1981, Prince Charles had a problem. He needed to marry, but not just anyone would do. He was expected to choose someone who had a spot of royal or noble blood, was a Protestant and also -- somewhat harder to find -- a virgin. It was thus that Charles settled on the Protestant, well-born and pure Diana. Britain fell in love. The prince did not.

Now Barack Obama is on a similar mission. To staff his presidential campaign and, in particular, advise him on the choice for a running mate, he is being required to seek people of such sterling ethical and financial character that they might not exist -- and if they did, they would be nearly worthless to him. I am referring, as you might have guessed, to the appalling defenestration of James Johnson, the former head of Fannie Mae. He was on Obama's vice presidential vetting team until, as sometimes happens, he was found to have a past.

It is abundantly clear that Johnson got home loans from Countrywide Financial, the company that Obama and others have blamed for contributing to the subprime mortgage debacle. It is not abundantly clear, however, that Johnson did anything wrong. The Wall Street Journal, which has done the major reporting on this story, said that some of Johnson's loans were "at lower-than-average interest rates" and that he got other kinds of considerations.

If Johnson were being contemplated for banking commissioner or something similar, this might be a problem. But he has instead been asked to vet Obama's vice presidential candidates. Only if one of them is connected with Countrywide Financial can I see a difficulty. That is not about to happen.

No matter. Others pounced on the story, finding Johnson very guilty by association -- inferentially indebted to the reviled Countrywide. Soon the GOP took up the cry that Johnson must go, and, after a moment's hesitation, he did. The Obama campaign thus showed a talent for retreat and, in the process, lost the services of someone who broke no law, greased no palm and has a reputation in Washington for integrity and sound judgment. That's why Obama had turned to him.

Almost more dismaying than the departure of Johnson was the cheer that went up after he left. The New York Times, doing a spot-on imitation of a college newspaper, chortled that the entire notion of the Washington insider was overrated. "Claims are made about irreplaceable sagacity supposedly offered by players in Washington's floating Brahmin crapgame," the paper editorialized. "More often than not, fundraising prowess and sycophancy win the edge as much as any evidence of brain power. What's wrong with some fresh talent, especially behind candidates who roam the nation proclaiming the era of change?"

This, I assure you, is not how the New York Times Co. picks its own board of directors.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with "fresh talent." But there's plenty wrong with so cheapening experience that we will learn nothing from the past. Johnson is a rare and valuable commodity. Among other things, he ran Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign and in 2004 vetted John Kerry's vice presidential choices. He has done more than his share of public service. If I were the 46-year-old Obama, just yesterday an Illinois state senator, I would sure turn to the Jim Johnsons of Washington for advice, appreciating their experience and also, if any, their obligations.

The Bush administration has done much to debase the coinage of experience. George Bush's inner circle -- Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld above all -- was rich in experience and poor in judgment. But it was not experience that led the Bushies astray. It was ideology, and that, of course, can addle the judgment of the experienced and the inexperienced alike. If the lesson we take from the debacle of Iraq is that experience does not matter, then we have lost the war twice over.

The departure of Jim Johnson is a bad omen. Already, the McCain campaign has purged itself of lobbyists, as if just being one is proof of corruption -- or as if all lobbyists are the same and, on account of what they do, irredeemably slimy. The Obama campaign has pledged to be just as clean. But what matters are the judgment and integrity of the candidate, not whether an adviser once got a bargain mortgage from a notorious lending institution or was once a lobbyist. This search for virgins will not result in a clean government but one, instead, that lacks the past to plan the future.

cohenr@washpost.com


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