The Presidency: The Leadership Branch?

7e. Presidential Character

Harry S Truman — man of the people. John F. Kennedy — bold, articulate leader with a great deal of charisma. Richard Nixon — introspective President with a deep knowledge of and interest in foreign policy. Each person who has held the office of President has brought to it a unique style. Each style reflects a President's character.

Clinton, Lewinsky, and Starr
President Bill Clinton was investigated by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The nature of the relationship, in addition to the President's evasion during the investigation, brought the issue of presidential character to the forefront of public discourse.

Barber's Research

James Barber published a well-known study of presidential character in which he studied personalities in order to predict presidential performance. Barber believes that Presidents can be categorized as having "positive" or "negative" attitudes, and as being "active" or "passive." His findings indicate that "positive active" Presidents are more successful than passive/negative ones. For example, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt had positive active personalities. According to Barber, their personalities cause them to approach the presidency with enthusiasm and a drive to lead and succeed.

The Kennedy Family
The American public was charmed by John F. Kennedy. The image of a Naval war hero and devoted family man played well in the Cold War era.

This research is controversial, but it is based on the assumption that presidential character and personality are extremely important in determining how successful a President is in office.

Rating the Presidents

Most Americans have their own ideas about which Presidents deserve to be called great, and which ones were failures. Historians even get into the ratings game, with Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger starting the modern game with his invitation to 55 prominent historians to rate the Presidents. Although the lists have varied over the years, some Presidents consistently rate at the top. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt have locked up the top three spots in nearly every ranking survey. Others with high scores are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. Usually near the bottom are James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding. Historians are reluctant to rank modern Presidents, because not enough time has passed to assess their legacies.

Some common leadership qualities that good Presidents appear to have are the following:

  • A strong vision for the country's future

    Jefferson Slave List
    Thomas Jefferson's advice to a child encouraged good character, although his own character is sometimes questioned. His ownership of the slaves listed here seems to contradict his statement that "all men are created equal," leading some modern critics to call him hypocritical.

  • An ability to put their own times in the perspective of history

  • Effective communication skills

  • The courage to make unpopular decisions

  • Crisis management skills

  • Character and integrity

  • Wise appointments

  • An ability to work with Congress

All Americans have different ideas about the importance that character plays in the job performance of the President. Considering all of the hats that a President must wear, perhaps the symbolic role that the President plays is most affected by character. Presidents must somehow symbolize what American citizens believe to be the essence of their country. They must represent what is valued now and in the past. But even more importantly, they embody the direction of America's future.

On the Web
The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House.
Every election, voters take a guess at which candidate would make the best President, and vote accordingly. On what do they base these guesses? James Barber argues that they should be made on the basis of character. One University of Colorado professor summarizes Barber's theory of presidential leadership and character at this plain-text website.
The Founders' View of Character and the Presidency
When the United States was created, the Founding Fathers probably didn't bank on a President being impeached because of a sex scandal. But they did acknowledge that strength of character (what they called moral and civic virtue) was very important in a leader. Although this essay from the Claremont Institute doesn't talk about presidential character in specific until halfway down the page, it gives a well-documented look at the issue.
The Moral Washington — The Construction of a Legend
George Washington never had any run-ins with a cherry tree. The story about his prayers at Valley Forge are largely fictional as well. The University of Virginia deconstructs some of these famous American myths and explains how they represent American values. Be sure to check out the links to Parson Weem's A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington, the contemporary biography in which many of the Washington myths first appeared.

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