Kevin Cullen

The virtues of inexperience

I’m sitting here, scratching my head, trying to figure out why so many people have their noses out of joint because Governor Deval Patrick appointed as ­interim US senator a guy who lacks political experience.

Seems to me that whether you’re talking about Congress, the State House, or City Hall, one of the problems is that too many people in those buildings have too much experience.

The supposed advantage of experience is just the flip side of entrenched incumbency. That produces predictable, complacent ­politicians, giving us a stale system in which experience always attracts money, but not necessarily wisdom. Because ex­per­ience tells most politicians that they should not rock the boat, they should toe the party line. Timidity is rewarded over risk-taking.


I’ve seen no empirical evidence that the best politicians have the most experience. There is, however, incontrovertible evidence that the politicians with the most ­experience are the politicians with the most money. And money, not experience, greases politics.

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So what has all this experience on ­Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill and City Hall Plaza bought us?

We have a Congress where compromise is considered not art but treachery.

We have a State House where one-party domination makes the concept of checks and balances a joke.

We have a City Hall where the incumbent is perceived as politically invincible even when he appears so physically vulnerable.


You would have to possess a heart of stone to watch and listen to Tom Menino’s State of the City address the other night at Faneuil Hall and not be moved. Menino is a good man, and he’s been a good mayor. But, at 70 and not in the best of health, is he going to run for a sixth term because he should or because he can?

When we afford experience such prominence, we buy into the myth that certain politicians are indispensable. We shore up a system in which too many politicians ­enjoy salaries and benefits far more generous than what the vast majority of their constituents subsist on. We perpetuate a system where the US Senate is a millionaire’s club. We ensure that the only people in a position to mount challenges against firmly entrenched incumbents are those willing or delusional enough to spend their own fortunes on quixotic campaigns. In short, we create politicians who are so much like each other and so little like us.

Of course, experience matters in all lines of work, including politics. John Kerry would not be secretary of state without all his experience in foreign affairs. Mo ­Cowan, appointed to fill Kerry’s seat until a special election is held in June, was legal counsel, then chief of staff for Patrick, jobs that you could argue don’t necessarily prepare him for the Senate.

Cowan will spend five months on the job in Washington. He’ll be there just long enough to take a few rides on that cool train that connects the Russell Senate ­Office Building to the Capitol. He is a smart, savvy guy whose roots make you want him to succeed. The only bad thing I can say about him is that he is a Duke basket­ball fan, part of an insufferable clique that makes Yankees fans seem ­humble.

But saying Cowan shouldn’t keep Kerry’s seat warm because he lacks experience is a bit much. He will not be asked to perform brain surgery. He’ll be asked to read a lot of papers, listen to a lot of people, and maybe cast a few votes. Armed with an impressive intellect and a healthy dose of common sense, he’ll do fine.


No doubt, the two Democrats who want to replace Kerry on a full-time basis, Ed Markey and Steve Lynch, will tout their ­experience in Congress. If Scott Brown throws his hat in the ring, he’ll stress that he actually did the job for three years.

If all politics is local, all experience is ­relative. It took John Kerry 24 years to ­become the senior senator from Massachusetts. It took Elizabeth Warren 29 days.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at