Saturday, September 06, 2008

Weren't the Founding Fathers "Community Organizers"?

The recent Republican National Convention took some shots at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's experience as a "community organizer." In particular, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin slammed Obama's experience, while defending her own qualifications to be Vice President (and possibly President). Here is that excerpt:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown.

And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

In other words, Palin's experience as smalltown mayor counts as experience much more than Obama's time as a "community organizer." Yet hold on a moment. What does that say about some of our past leaders?

Well, Bonnie Fuller, writing in The Huffington Post, has accused Palin of "dissing" Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and our Founding Fathers. Fuller writes:

Has anyone just stopped for a second to reflect on the fact that Sarah didn't just diss Barack Obama, Rosa Parks and the thousands of other community organizers when she derided the Democratic presidential nominee's experience?

Hello! How about the founding fathers. I watched those guys portrayed in the recent and excellent HBO series, John Adams. It sure looked to me like the American Revolution began with a whole lot of grassroots community organizing done by dedicated private individuals focused on trying to build a better political system to benefit their fellow members of the Thirteen Colonies.

Whether Barack Obama's experience as an Illinois community organizer counts as worthy experience for his presidential resume is beyond the purview of this blog. I write on the American Revolution era, after all. If you want my political views, go to my personal blog. But...

I do want to address whether Fuller is correct about Palin's remarks...

Did Sarah Palin inadvertently discredit our Founding Fathers?

Just to clarify...Palin made these comments in response to her own experience and qualifications being attacked by the Democrats and some in the media. So, she was speaking on the defensive. What's more, Palin isn't saying that it's bad to be a community organizer. She's simply arguing that it's not executive experience, and that it therefore shouldn't be held up as a qualifier for the presidency.

Okay, that's what she's saying. Would the Founders agree?

First, I think it's a mistake for the Republicans to emphasize "executive experience" instead of "leadership experience." By emphasizing the former, the Republicans are putting a prerequisite on the office that the Founding Fathers did not. Not to mention that Sarah Palin has more "executive experience" than John McCain, which was on my mind the whole time during the Republican National Convention. If "executive experience" is the ultimate qualifier for the presidency, then Sarah Palin is more qualified than John McCain. Is that the message that the Republicans want to convey?

If not "executive experience," what did the Founders expect in a President?

The answer is LEADERSHIP experience. With this in mind, legislative experience, military experience, and (yes) community-organizing experience (on a proportionately large scale) CAN qualify someone for the highest office of the land.

For example, George Washington demonstrated his leadersip experience and qualifications during the American Revolution. Prior to that, he was a Virginia legislator, plantation owner and business man, and hero of the French and Indian War. After the Revolution, he presided over the Constitutional Convention - a parliamentary role, but a critical one. No one questioned Washington's experience, because he hadn't been a governor.

John Adams didn't even have military experience to fall back on. And like Washington, Adams had no experience as a governor. He was a legislator and (yes) a community organizer. He was also an ambassador.

I could go on. In terms of founding era qualifications, it seems that the American people expected their Presidents to be proven leaders.

This is the way Americans today should evaluate the presidential candidates. Does Sarah Palin's experience as mayor and governor qualify? Sure it does.

And then there's John McCain. His only "executive experience" was as commander of an air squadron. This is hardly at the level of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, or other military figures who took the White House. But few question McCain's qualifications to be President. Why? Because McCain has demonstrated leadership experience during his time in the US Senate.

What about Barack Obama's community organizing experience? Well, by itself, probably not. But is it a good start? Definitely. And if someone takes their experience as a community organizer and then builds on that to become a national leader, then that's something worth looking at. And I think that's where Obama is right now. Whether he'll make an effective President remains to be seen, but he has positioned himself as a national leader. That much is certain.

This post isn't intended to take sides in any kind of partisan way. The truth is that all four of the top contenders for President and Vice President have demonstrated leadership experience, and this is how we should evaluate them, when we make our choice in November.


bpabbott said...

Brian: "In other words, Palin's experience as smalltown mayor counts as experience much more than Obama's time as a "community organizer." Yet hold on a moment. What does that say about some of our past leaders?"

Brian you've made some excellent points! Thanks.

Raven said...

Wasn't Jesus Christ a community organizer? And Pilate a governor? That should be enough for "values" voters!

Maurice said...

I would agree that it is hard to say that one kind of experience vs. another is a valid way to compare the candidates: However, WHAT they did in office, or as organizers, or in whatever kind of leadership roles they had, IS important.

Those of us who oppose Obama do so on the basis that his "leadership" qualities were not very apparent. He voted "present" so many times in office, he has dodged a great many of the questions posed to him, and his legacy as a community organizer doesn't have much to show for it.

I would more argue McCain vs. Obama anyway. McCain has a long "body-of-work" in the Senate, with many votes and bills to look at. One might look at them and say he's not worthy for the job; that's fine, but he HAS at least put himself out there in terms of taking stands.

I'm willing to read where someone can tell me what Obama really DId, what lasting impact he had as a community organizer. Palin has already had some positive outcomes in Alaska, hence her high approval ratings, and yes, please don't show me the folks who oppose her; no one has 100% approvals, and like all politicians, she has her enemies).

I would agree that the terminology of "community organizer" should not be used as denigrating Obama. It is the results of that job that should be the criteria whereby we say if it was worthwhile experience or not, and thus, if we should trust the reins of government to this man.

EHT said...

I have brought up the issue of the Founding Fathers and the experience question in recent discussions, and I agree with what you say here. Experience can be gained from all aspects of life and I don't think we should be arguing about it especially in light of past presidents.

Mark Wilensky said...

I would very much like to introduce you to a book constructed around Paine's "Common Sense" that is making its way into elementary, middle and high-schools nationwide in the U.S:

The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for all Ages.

I am a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado and I adapted Common Sense for readers 11 to adult. (What I consider to be one of the most important, and overlooked, founding documents in America.) The original version is also included.

Also included are a dozen activities for school districts, teachers and homeschoolers. Everything can be accessed on the interactive website as well.

Happily, I can say that many many schools have started integrating the book into their curriculum, so our citizens are starting to learn about Mr. Paine from the age of 10. Additionally, the book is also being used by some states to convince their legislatures to pass a Paine observation day.

Please feel free to visit the book's website:

My very best wishes,

Mark Wilensky
The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for all Ages.