What Qualities do Great Presidents Share?
It's finally over. The end of what some have called the longest (certainly), most entertaining (arguably), and most historic (unlikely) Presidential campaign ever.
We’ve spent some of this campaign talking about policy. In fact, those who say that campaigns are all style and no substance these days should relax. We ask our candidates to spell out their policy plans in excruciating detail and they mostly comply. The only thing George Washington and his immediate successors gave the electorate was a grudging admission that they were, indeed, running.
But we spend more time talking about the leadership qualities and past experiences of the candidates, wondering and debating whether each has the necessary qualities to be what our age yearns for – a great leader.
It’s an interesting conversation. But very often we are mistaken about the qualities that are - and aren’t - reliable predictors of greatness.
Common Traits of Great Leaders
It’s not experience. As I wrote a while back, we’ve had great Presidents who lacked experience and weak Presidents who had piles of it.
It’s not the power to unify. The list of our most divisive Presidents is pretty much the same as the list of our greatest Presidents. In fact, with the exception of Washington every great and near-great President has seriously pissed off huge chunks of the electorate. (See here for detail.)
It’s not IQ. George Washington certainly wasn’t dumb, but among the six men usually accorded Founder status (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin), GW probably ranked last in intellectual firepower. FDR was famously said to have a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect. Lincoln, the 3rd member of the Trinity of Great Presidents, is widely regarded as a genius today – but few people in the 1860’s considered this roughly-educated frontier lawyer to be exceptionally or even marginally smart.
Of our great and near-great Presidents*, only Thomas Jefferson might legitimately be called an intellectual. So while we’d prefer to not have a dunce in the White House, the ability to read and understand Aristotle’s Politics in the original Greek – or even in translated English - is an unreliable predictor of greatness.
It’s not military prowess. Washington won a war and showed courage under fire and was a great President. Grant won a war and showed courage under fire and was a terrible President. Eisenhower won a war and showed courage under fire and was neither great nor terrible.
What about the power to communicate? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere…
Words, words, words…
Winston Churchill was arguably the greatest leader of the 20th century. I’m an admirer of Churchill but read a biography and you’ll be struck by how often he was awesomely, colossally wrong. The debacle of the Dardanelles was Churchill’s gift to the First World War (if you don’t know what I’m talking about rent Gallipoli. Or ask an Australian. Or click here.). During the Second World War, Churchill infuriated American war planners with his insistence on a peripheral strategy, resulting in the quagmire of Italy.
So what made him a great leader? Words. He was right about one big thing – the scale of the Nazi threat and the necessity of destroying it – and he used words to persuade the British people they must, and more importantly could, defeat Germany. This was not obvious to anyone in May 1940, after the fall of France and the escape from Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force. The eloquence and force of his oratory is what gave England the courage to stand alone in 1940 and 41, until Japan invited America to the war.
Abraham Lincoln was arguably the greatest leader of the 19th century. I yield to no one in my admiration of Lincoln, but as Commander-in-Chief he got off to a very rough start. He changed generals after every battle and oversaw a war machine that was often corrupt (his first War Secretary resigned in disgrace). He had little to no control over George McClellan, his senior general in the early years of the war. So what’s so great about Lincoln?
Again, words. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln articulated for the nation the reason for war, indeed the reason for the existence of the United States. In his Second Inaugural, he spoke with great poetry about the reasons for the horrors of the previous 4 years. And in countless letters and speeches and meetings in between he used words to persuade the North that this cause was worth fighting for.
I bring all this up because Barack Obama's meteoric rise from state Senator to the White House was driven mostly by his oratory. Great oratory has several factors. The words themselves, of course, and for modern politicians those words are mostly written by others. But also the grace and power of the delivery.
Obama is at times a great orator, particularly when compared with the the shrill-voiced Hillary Clinton and the stilted speaking of John McCain. He certainly was last night. Further, it is clear that millions of Americans responded with fervor to his message.
This ability to connect with voters, to get the kind of fervent response we saw in this election, shows he may have the raw abilities to be a great leader.
Ah, but what if, unlike Lincoln and Churchill, he's wrong about the great issues of his day? What if his intellect and eloquence are harnessed to failed policies? If you're a fiscal conservative, you can't feel good about Obama's mission to raise corporate taxes and strengthen unions. If you're a national security conservative, you may feel queasy about Obama's plans to close Gitmo, leave Iraq, and chat up Ahmadinejad. If you're a cultural conservative, that crack about bitter Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion still sticks in your craw.
But relax. In a few days I'll publish my piece titled "10 (or so) Reasons that Conservatives Should Lie Back and Enjoy the Age of Obama - or at Least not Move to Australia."
* When I use the terms great and near-great, I’m not basing this on personal opinion. Numerous polls of historians have been done in recent years. For an overview of these polls, click here.