Fending off questions about lack of experience, presidential candidates usually plead that they will get smart advisers. Donald Trump repeatedly says he will hire the best, the smartest, the most fabulous advisers to help him. He does not need to know all those “little” details about which terrorists groups are where and with whom they are allied. (Remember Trump is the guy who says he gets his advice from Sunday shows and who had to fire — in his version of events — political hatchet man Roger Stone.)
In the same vein, Ben Carson said: “Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said in Proverbs 11:14, ‘In a multitude of counselors is safety.’ If the wisest man who ever lived thought that, I certainly believe that. I think you’re a fool if you think you know everything.”
Actually, in a multitude of presidential counselors you will find conflicting advice, and therein lies the fallacy of the “surround myself with smart advisers” argument.
Unless a president won by reelection, he enters office never having done the job. But he enters, we would hope, with a grasp of the issues, a solid record in crisis management and a knack for hiring the right people to effectuate his policies. A president has never, and for good reason, entered office with no public-sector employment, no grasp of the issues (or significant details), no congressional allies and no set of trusted policy wonks. With such a background, how would you even know whom to select to advise you?
More important, the “smart adviser” notion perceives the president’s job incorrectly. Only the hard calls, the issues on which advisers disagree, get to the president’s desk. Otherwise the undersecretary of whatever can handle it. If you have no coherent view, no mastery of specifics, no public experience to draw on, how would you resolve such conflicts?
The defense that our government was designed for “citizen politicians” misses the mark as well. It was not designed for ignoramuses, and from the beginning, our presidents were steeped in public service. George Washington was wartime leader before becoming president; John Adams had been a vice president, and Thomas Jefferson had been a state legislator, minister to France, vice president and secretary of state. (“Citizen politician” does not mean one of the hapless men on the street who cannot tell a late-night talk show host what century World War II was fought in.)
There is a reason only a handful of our presidents had no elected experience before entering office, and they were either generals (Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor) or held important public positions (William Howard Taft was secretary of war; Herbert Hoover organized the unprecedented European relief effort after World War I and was commerce secretary).
In sum, Trump and Carson — who routinely demonstrate a lack of understanding of history (the Holocaust, 9/11), the Constitution (Carson wants the government to police colleges for “bias” while Trump wants to round up millions of people) and policy (especially foreign policy) — cannot hide behind the promise they will hire smart advisers. We have had good and bad presidents, but we never chose someone proud of ignorance and inexperience. It’s probably not a good idea to try it when the world is in chaos and social and economic problems abound.