Lessig on Palin – not the whole story

John Heidemann pointed me at a post on Lawrence Lessig’s blog in which Lessig assesses Palin’s qualifications against vice presidents who were elected to the position. It’s an interesting angle to take, and overall I agree with his conclusion that she’s got one of the weakest resumes for the job. Personally, I believe there are many better qualified people to be VP, and I consider her choice as a candidate to be a strike against McCain. In essence, I agree with Lessig’s assessment of her credentials.

However, I have a significant problem with Lessig’s presentation. He takes some pains to point out both that Palin has a weaker resume than all but two holders of the VP office, and that roughly 1 in 5 Vice Presidents have to assume the duties of president. The implication is that there’s a 1 in 5 chance that the country goes down the tubes if she’s elected. What I find disingenuous about the presentation is that he fails to mention that one of his 2 least qualified vice presidents assumed the office of the presidency and aquitted himself fairly well.

Only looking at Chester A. Arthur‘s resume, as Lessig does, probably oversells his suitability for the job. In addition to the lack of experience on the national stage, Arthur was a believer in the spoils system, and was long associated with the customs collection in NYC, which was a hotbed of chicanery, if not outright corruption. Few believers in good government believed that Arthur would do anything but follow the party line and reward hacks.

When Garfield was shot by an assassin who claimed to represent Arthur’s faction in the party, Vice President Arthur got his call on the red phone. Few had high hopes for his performance, but a remarkable thing happened: he grew into the office rather well. All told he acquitted himself quite admirably on many fronts, often bucking the very party leaders who had put him in power.

Arthur makes few people’s list of great presidents. He faced relatively quiet times, and his successes were mostly domestic. He makes fairly few lists of worst presidents, either. He is an interesting case study of how an underqualified person can rise to the challenge of the presidency.

I don’t mean this to be a defense of Sarah Palin. As I’ve said above, I think she is an unwise choice for VP and I would have grave concerns if she became president. Nor do I wish the description of Arthur’s experience to support the position that a vice president needn’t have any experience to do well as president; I believe that a VP should be qualified in his or her own right. While Arthur was a reasonable president, Theodore Roosevelt, who also assumed office following an assassination, became an outstanding president, partially because of his superior experience and qualifications.

However, after Lessig draws the parallel to Arthur, and raises the specter of an unqualified president, I think he owes the audience a description of how Arthur did when he assumed the higher office. Failure is not a certainty in this situation, and it’s only fair to point that out.

Comments are closed.