Friday, April 15, 2011

Presidency (1): Lives, Leaders, Lessons

Being president of the United States is arguably the toughest job in the world. Harry Truman said it was like riding a tiger -- you are anxious about staying on, but you dare not let go. People are fascinated by the presidency because it gives them the opportunity (1) to catch a glimpse of interesting lives, (2) to learn how to become better leaders, and (3) to glean important lessons of our common story as Americans.


Most presidents have interesting biographies, even the "bearded icebergs" among them. It takes people with an unusual combination of traits to campaign for, and serve as, president of the United States. Few Americans are familiar with the fascinating human interest stories about the 43 men who have occupied the office:
  • The father of our country, George Washington, entered adulthood with a quite flawed character, seen most of all when he and the men under his command ambushed a French diplomatic mission at Jumonville Glen. This outrage led to Europe's first true world war, the Seven Years War.
  • You think the press is hard on politicians now? Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist as well as having a "negro slave" for a mistress when he ran for office.
  • James Madison was the last sitting president personally to lead troops in battle. It was during the War of 1812. Americans lost the battle, Washington was occupied, and the White House was set ablaze.
  • Andrew Jackson was a prisoner of war during America's War for Independence. He was wed to a woman who was still married to her first husband.
  • In the White House John Tyler married the charismatic and beautiful Julia Gardiner, a kind of Princess Diana of her day. She was young enough to be his daughter.
  • Some historians believe that James Buchanan, the only bachelor president, was gay.
  • When one considers all the obstacles he overcame -- poverty, lack of schooling, a tendency toward debilitating depression -- the odds against Abraham Lincoln ever becoming president were overwhelming.
  • In the White House, Grover Cleveland married the young woman he formerly babysat, Frances Folsom.
  • Woodrow Wilson's second wife Edith was secretly the acting president after a series of strokes debilitated her husband.
  • Calvin Coolidge never got over the death of his son during the first year he was in the White House.
  • Had Franklin Roosevelt divorced Eleanor, which he strongly considered doing in the 1920s after he was caught in an adulterous relationship, he would never have become president.
  • John Kennedy's libidinal and medical needs, had they been known, would probably have disqualified him from serving in the office today.
  • Richard Nixon's tortured responses to the Watergate scandal wrecked public and media trust in the office of the presidency, and it was left to Gerald Ford to clean up the mess. The encounter between Ford's assistant, Benton Becker, and former President Nixon in San Clemente has got to be one of the most surreal such encounters in U.S. history.


U.S. presidents offer leadership consultants a bevy of case studies. Because the American presidency is the toughest job in the world, it is a cockpit of leadership trials. People are fascinated by individuals who rise to the top ... and can stay there for any length of time. Past ages celebrated their heroes and saints. Our age celebrates leaders.

The office offers invaluable case studies in leadership for any American who wants to learn the lessons. Good books about the presidency invariably tell the story of the most important decisions U.S. presidents ever made. Such case studies (1) heighten awareness that the U.S. commander in chief has evolved into the single most important actor in world affairs – militarily, economically, and rhetorically; (2) throw light on the private toll major decisions exact on the president, first family, and close advisors and their families; and (3) show how a leader approaches those tough 51-49 decisions when much is at stake.

World-historical decisions worth considering include:

  • Washington’s decision to accept the presidency and establish the office on both constitutional and pragmatic grounds;
  • Washington's decision to retire after two terms of office demonstrated the importance of walking away from power -- a necessary virtue in a republic;
  • Adams's peaceful, constitutional transfer of power to the opposition party following the Election of 1800;
  • Jefferson’s opportunistic purchase of Louisiana territory, even though it violated his own governing principles;
  • Polk’s determination to go to war against Mexico;
  • Buchanan is savaged by most historians. But few people realize that the 15th president did not think the Constitution gave him the authority to keep Southern states from seceding. He also did not want to begin a war at the end of his presidency, which would unfairly burden his successor.
  • Lincoln’s willingness to risk war against the very people he was constitutionally sworn to protect at Fort Sumter;
  • Lincoln's decision to emphasize reconciliation with rather than punishment of the South following the Civil War;
  • Wilson’s legislative and public relations strategy at the end of the First World War to get Americans to back the League of Nations;
  • FDR’s move during the crisis of the Great Depression to make the first hundred days the benchmark of a presidency;
  • Truman’s unperturbed decision to drop two atom bombs;
  • Kennedy’s decision to accelerate U.S. involvement in Vietnam;
  • Lyndon Johnson's decision to champion civil rights for African Americans, which drove Southern Democrats into the Republican Party, insuring that Republicans would dominate the White House for at least a generation (and, indeed, the GOP won the White House in 7 of the next 10 elections);
  • Johnson's legislative skill and leverage of sympathy following JFK's assassination, which led to passage of almost 1,000 bills in just a few years -- a record no other president even comes close to;
  • Johnson's dishonesty about the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and his desire to prosecute the Vietnam War to take the New Deal (and specifically the TVA) to the Developing World;
  • To the dismay of most, Reagan focused on rebuilding America's morale and military strength to confront the Soviet Union -- and the Soviet Union obliged by crumbling from within without firing a shot.


Want a wonderful way to learn the most important lessons of American history? Because the president is the one individual in our government who represents all the people, he is inescapably identified with our national story. Thus the presidency is one of the best ways to open a window onto our collective trials and triumphs. Their struggles make for a rollicking good story.

1. The evolution of the presidency itself has become a part of that story, and it has had a profound effect on world history. To understand the evolution of the most powerful institution on the planet, one should start with the Constitution. After fighting to free themselves from a tyrannical king, the Founders were chary of a powerful executive. It is no accident that the first Article in the Constitution is not about the Presidency but about the Congress. According to the framers, it is the legislative branch, representing the people, that is to initiate action on the part of the national government. Symbolically Article II, concerning the Presidency, comes after Article I about the Congress since the president's duty is to enforce the laws already passed by Congress.

Following the lead of the framers, virtually all of our early presidents tended to defer to Congress in domestic matters (except when the nation was under immediate threat from a foreign power). Until the end of the 19th century, our nation did not have the robust, interventionist foreign policy that Americans are used to today. Although derided by political opponents as "King Andrew," even Andrew Jackson's assertions were usually to exert a negative force to stop something from happening. Among the nation's first 25 presidents, Abraham Lincoln was the exception but that is because he served in exceptional times. He initially wanted to serve in the White House as a more restrained, Whig-style president, allowing Congress to initiate reforms, but he became the principal in one of early modernity's most devastating wars. As a result, Lincoln exploited all the powers at his disposal as a wartime commander in chief. His actions still generate heated debate, as a number of Americans believe that he was our most tyrannical president ever.

Not until the 20th century and the arrival of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, did the nature of the institution change vis-a-vis Congress. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898), TR proudly championed American empire. A social Darwinist when it came to international affairs, TR believed that warfare kept men manly and kept the people as a whole from becoming decadent. Because the president is constitutionally designated to be commander in chief of the armed forces, and because empire crowds out the time a government would otherwise spend on domestic policies, there arose the so-called imperial presidency during TR's presidency. The imperial presidency evolved through most of the 20th century as the United States embraced a 24/7 foreign policy. Our servicemen and women were increasingly deployed around the globe. As a result, we have been in more than 300 conflicts requiring the use of armed force. America's "soft empire" has effected a revolution in the office of the president (anticipated, incidentally, by Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention of 1787).

2. Jim Cooke makes a good argument that the first truly "liberal" president was John Quincy Adams; the last truly "conservative" president was Calvin Coolidge. JQA wanted the national government to initiate more programs than was customary. By contrast, Coolidge resisted the Progressives of his day and kept the national government fenced in, not allowing it to encroach on the private sector and civil society.

3. H. W. Brands observes that our nine Cold War presidents -- from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush -- always challenged conventional wisdom. The conservatives among them tended to become liberals in domestic policy, while the liberals among them tended to become conservatives in foreign policy. One reason conservatives became liberals in domestic policy was that the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union for the ethical high ground in the developing world. We had to demonstrate that our system of government was worth adopting and emulating. One reason liberals became conservatives in foreign policy is that they understood how real the threats to our nation were once they were privy to intelligence.

4. It's tough to find one overarching theme for the dozen presidents since World War II because the period spans two world-historical eras (from 1945-1991 the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, and since 1991 American dominance as the world's hyperpower). One constant has been the prevalence of television in shaping the institution and public opinion. The more successful presidents have used the medium adroitly. Two-term President Dwight Eisenhower won an Emmy for his presidential performance on the tube. John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election arguably because of superior performances during televised debates. (Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debates, so the disparity in media proved to be a turning point in electoral politics.) Two-term President Ronald Reagan parlayed a movie career into being a "great communicator" on TV. Two-term President Bill Clinton skillfully used television to project his likeable personality.

Instant communication has made the White House much more attentive to image, presentation, and gaffes. Mistakes are magnified at the speed of light. Molehills not only can trip a leader; they can make for a dramatic fall, as if down a mountain. Our post-war presidents must be much more cautious than their predecessors were. They have to be more self-conscious about the effect their words and actions will have on the next news cycle and election cycle than previous presidents. Whether 24/7 cable news coverage and the resulting hypersensitivity to image have been a good thing for American governance is debatable.

5. Not every lesson has to be high falutin. Some are simply fascinating -- e.g., when popular tastes have a purchase on the presidency. Why is it that, with two exceptions, every president from Lincoln to Taft sported either a mustache or beard? The answer lies in the broader cultural trends of the West. During the Enlightenment, beards were out of fashion among leaders. No prominent European ruler wore facial hair while in office. Peter the Great even taxed beards to encourage Russians to look more like western Europeans. Following the European trend, none of America's founding presidents sported a mustache or beard while in office. But facial hair came back into style in the 1850 as a sign of virility. The trend caught on in the U.S.

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For more on leadership formation at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, visit

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