As usual, the national political conventions pulsed with harsh rhetoric and wild claims. But both parties and their candidates shed little light on the most important single qualification that’s needed to bring this country out of the dark passage of George W. Bush: leadership.

The New York Times even made a complete survey of the buzz words that dominated the conventions: change, energy, taxes, Iraq, Bush and reform. The word leadership was not among them.

Perhaps the four candidates just think they each exude leadership. That’s not the case — especially when none of the candidates has really held a leadership position on a national scale except Sen. Joseph Biden who led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for several years, and Sen. John McCain, who chaired the Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee.

Biden’s vice-presidential opponent, Gov. Sarah Palin, made a hilarious claim to leadership, saying being mayor of a town of 5,500 carried more “responsibilities” than a community organizer in Chicago. That just reveals she knows nothing about America’s urban problems. Furthermore, she distorts the fact that when she was running Wasilla, Alaska, Barack Obama was no longer a community organizer, but a state senator in a district with 40 times the population of Wasilla, and later an elected U.S. senator from the fifth most populous state in the country, representing 12 million.

Obama also has a tenuous claim to leadership, given his relative inexperience. Yet he ran a highly successful national campaign where he dealt effectively with the most complex challenges, has served as a senator for three years, and according to Republican staffers, was an articulate, serious member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Leadership consists of several key qualities: character, judgment, vision, and I would add, pragmatism, an ability to set constructive goals and work with others to get things done — in the national interest.

McCain possesses many of these qualities, as does Obama and Biden. One could even argue, as I did in a June column, that McCain has more experience. But his first serious decision in the campaign suggests that he lacks sound judgment — at least in making decisions in the national interest. Would he make decisions on war and peace with the same flip action with which he chose Palin?

McCain’s choice of the young governor of a state with the population of Charlotte, N.C., put new life into the GOP campaign. Palin’s dynamism and down-to-earth qualities make McCain look stodgy.

If protection of the unborn or the right to teach creationism were the top priorities in this election, she’d be a better candidate for president than her own running mate. But the key issues, given the parlous state of the country, center on national security, restoring an effective foreign policy, and reviving the American economy, now in hock to Abu Dhabi, Singapore and China, and the American tax-payer.

Preparedness to be president is the first qualification of a vice-president in a complex, nuclear, globalized world. All the more so when McCain could become the oldest person elected to a first term as president. Sarah Palin doesn’t measure up — not because she is a woman, but because she’d be completely over her head if she were suddenly to be sworn in as commander-in-chief.

Eight years from now, perhaps she would be ready. But in a year or two? What to do on decisions for nearly 200,000 American soldiers at war in Iraq and Afghanistan? How to tackle terrorism, to prevent an attack with a nuclear weapon? How to deal with Iran, Russia, China, our addiction to oil, global warming. To make momentous decisions on the largest economy in the world?

Republicans have a long way to go to overcome the disastrous record of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. No wonder McCain-Palin now embrace “change.” But what hypocrisy. Who do they think has been in the White House for the last eight years and dominated Congress recently? What party revered deregulation — the very policy that has helped put this country in the worst state it’s been in since the Depression?

At the convention, Palin invoked Harry Truman, hinting she could be as successful as “a haberdasher from Missouri.” Republicans have a thing about Truman, a tough, effective Democratic president. Bush also likes to invoke Truman. I’m afraid to say, Ms. Palin, (and Mr. Bush), you’re no Harry Truman.

Truman found himself president all of a sudden when Franklin Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term. Truman, who had not been briefed on the Manhattan Project and several other critical matters, said he felt like “the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen” on him. Do we really want Sarah Palin in that position?

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at