When I was in college I checked out from the library a book by Hedley Donovan, a renowned political reporter, entitled Roosevelt to Reagan. It was written in the 1980s, and it described his experiences with 9 Presidents. Based on that experience, Donovan made a list of 32 qualities that he looked for in a person that was running for the Oval Office. I photocopied that part of the book and kept it all these years, looking at it in every Presidential election since 1988, a useful guide to judging the candidates during the primaries. As a liberal Democrat, I’ve always gone for the Democratic candidate during the general elections, but I’ve learned about political leadership qualities that I admire even from Republican Presidents whom I strongly disagreed with. Like Donovan, I would like to reflect upon the qualities that make my favorite Presidents.
Written just after Reagan was reelected to a second term, Donovan gave this evaluation of the 9 Presidents that he presided over:
The modern Presidency begins with Franklin Roosevelt, and nine men (as of December 1984) have held the job. In the twenty eight years, from 1933 to 1961, we had one great President, FDR, one very good President, Dwight Eisenhower, and by my own ranking, one good-to-very-good President, Harry Truman. None of the next four Presidents could be put in any of those categories. The short Presidencies of John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, for all the differences of philosophy and style, were the best, or perhaps the least unsuccessful, of the 1960s and 1970s. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation was a noble achievement but his Presidency is forever blighted by the tragic failure in Vietnam. Richard Nixon was our best President of foreign policy since Eisenhower, not just because he had the wit to employ Dr. Kissinger. And he presided over Watergate. The full returns are not yet in on Jimmy Carter, nor, of course, on Ronald Reagan.”
As a reporter who covered Washington D.C. for several years, he had some interesting insights on each of the men he covered who inhabited the Oval Office. One of my favorite Presidents, John F. Kennedy, did not leave a good impression on Donovan. He found Kennedy less substantial in office, and Donovan felt that Kennedy’s brother Bobby would’ve been a far better President than John was. Donovan was bothered by Reagan’s inattention to detail, an observation that foreshadowed the troubles Reagan would go through later in the Iran Contra hearings. Donovan was a deep admirer of Roosevelt, but what surprised me was Donovan’s admiration for Eisenhower’s Presidency. Donovan felt that Eisenhower was effective behind the scenes, that his genial public smile hid a shrewd political mind. In a chapter in his book, Job Specs for the Oval Office, Donovan came up with a list of 32 attributes that he thought a person should have to be a good President. I liked the list and thought I’d use some of those attributes to evaluate my own list of favorite Presidents.
One of the things that I’d want from a President would be his or her ability to inspire the country. Franklin Roosevelt inspired America during the depths of the Great Depression with his confident style and his oratorical skill. Kennedy inspired a generation of young people into public service with his great speeches. Though I didn’t like Reagan’s politics, I have to commend Reagan for his ability to make America feel good about itself again after the traumas of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis (although I would argue that he made America feel good for the wrong reasons). From looking at these Presidents, I think the ability to inspire is important because it enables the nation to move with the President towards his or her goals. I look at two Presidents who weren’t able to inspire the nation: Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. When Carter was elected in 1976, he was riding a wave of change brought on by Watergate: he had large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress; and he came with a strong work ethic and a lot of good will. Despite his intelligence and integrity, however, Carter was unable to inspire the American people as it went through long gas lines, high inflation and interest rates, and a grueling hostage crisis. When Bush became President in 1988, he succeeded a very popular President and the economy was doing well. I didn’t like his policies, but I really liked his “thousand points of light” and “kinder gentler America” speeches, and thought they were a good attempt to light a fire to get more Americans to volunteer to community services, like Kennedy’s speeches had inspired the young 20 years before. The first Bush President didn’t have Kennedy’s charisma, however, and when a recession hit, he didn’t have a feel for the suffering of the average citizen. Both Carter and Bush lost the people’s confidence because they didn’t have that inspiring presence. I think the key to inspiring people is the ability to communicate confidence and direction and neither was able to do so.
I want a President who is a tough politician who can garner tough votes in Congress, knows how to handle the various egos in his or her Cabinet, and knows how to reach out to different voices so that the President doesn’t get trapped listening to a narrow set of views. Two of the most successful liberal legislative achievements, the New Deal and the Great Society, were brought to fruit by two Presidents, Roosevelt and Johnson, who knew how to play politics and wheel and deal. Reagan showed that same type of political manuevring when he had a Democratic House passing his major conservative legislation. Eisenhower didn’t have the legislative achievements to match these 3 other Presidents, but he had a good cabinet that he made sure followed his agenda, and not follow their own. I think Eisenhower’s management skills were the best of all the Presidents of the past 50 years. Kennedy’s Best and the Brightest cabinet, I feel after reading a few books, seem a bit overblown, but I think Kennedy learned how to access a wide variety of views. This learned talent helped JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where he reached out beyond his cabinet and the military to find options other than immediately bombing Cuba. I think this was the great flaw in our present President. I think the original cabinet of George W. Bush was too narrow ideologically, and during the run up to the Iraq War, Cheney and Rumsfeld were able to marginalize the moderate voices in the administration, primarily Powell. A more diverse ideological cabinet would’ve made such a marginalization less likely. Both Reagan and the present Bush tend to overdelegate, and that lead Reagan to the Iran Contra scandal and led Bush to conferring too much power to Cheney. Nixon gave his cabinet an “us-against-them” mentality and this led to Watergate.
A crucial quality for Donovan and me is a President’s perceptiveness about the American people. I think this perceptiveness enables a President to know when to push for difficult reforms and when to wait for a more receptive time. And I think a President should be open enough to be moved by the grassroots movements. Lincoln and Roosevelt are the best examples of this. Lincoln had to maneuvre through a cabinet of political rivals, border states staying uneasily in the Union, egotistical Union generals, and abolitionists who were impatient for change. Lincoln made sure not to move too far ahead of the general Union populace, making preserving the Union his top goal and going forward with the emancipation of slavery after the efforts of the abolitionists. Kennedy, in a similar fashion, came into office lukewarm on civil rights and was pushed into civil rights legislation after the freedom rides and the protests at Birmingham. Both were perceptive to the mood of the general public and knew when to act. Nixon and Johnson are examples of Presidents who lost touch of the American people. Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam wrecked his Presidency because he didn’t see that the people who supported his Vietnam policy tended to be against his Great Society programs, and visa versa. It caused a huge generation gap, and fueled a growing skepticism of government. Nixon only made the divisions worse. Ford was not a great President, but I think his personality and the openness of his wife Betty did a lot to help heal the divisions of that time.
As the primaries roll on, I’ve been trying to see how much of these qualities are found in Clinton and Obama. Both are good candidates with very different strengths. At her best, I see Hillary as being like Eisenhower, a strong manager with a depth of details in policy. That’s the impression I get when I see her in the debates. Obama at his best is like Kennedy. Whenever I hear him speak, I get really inspired. I voted for Hillary in the California primaries because I like her command of the issues and I like her toughness. I like the fact that both candidates are inspiring young people, women, African Americans to get involved in the political process and to be passionate about the state of our nation.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote an essay on leadership for a series of young adult books on famous leaders. He wrote:
“Government by reflection and choice called for a new style of leadership and a new quality of followship. It required leaders to be responsive to popular concerns, and it required followers to be active and informed participants in the process… The signal benefit the great leaders confer is to embolden the rest of us to live according to our own best selves, to be active, insistent, and resolute in affirming our own sense of things. For great leaders attest to the reality of human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history. And they attest to the wisdom and power that may lie within the most unlikely of us, which is why Abraham Lincoln remains the supreme example of great leadership. A great leader, said Emerson, exhibits new possiblities to all humanity. ‘We feed on genius…Great men exist that there may be greater men.’
Great leaders, in short, justify themselves by emancipating and empowering their followers. So humanity struggles to master its destiny, remembering with Alexis de Tocquiville: ‘It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced beyond which he cannot pass; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free; as it is with man, so with communities.”