The following is an excerpt from Fit for the Presidency?: Winners, Losers, What-Ifs, and Also-Rans (January 2017) by Seymour Morris Jr. Morris is a former political pollster, head of corporate communications, and international entrepreneur. He is the author of American History Revised: 200 Facts That Never Made It into the Textbooks and Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan.
Introduction: What Our Founding Fathers Looked for in a Potential President
At the Constitutional Convention, in their deliberations concerning the newly created office of the presidency, the Founding Fathers listed only two qualities a president should have: experience and fortitude.1 In the Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay describe the ideal candidate as having experience. (The word appears no fewer than ninety-one times.)2 In their view, truths are taught and corroborated by experience. They speak of “unequivocal” lessons from experience and the “accumulated experience of ages.” “Experience is the parent of wisdom,” declares Hamilton, and Madison is in total agreement: “Let us consult experience, the guide that ought always to be followed whenever it can be found.” In sum, the primary qualification for president is “the best oracle of wisdom”: deep experience.3
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention defined fortitude as a combination of courage, steadfastness, firmness, trustworthiness, and integrity. Most were thoroughly educated in religion and the classics and had read St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Catholic theologian who taught that prudence and justice are the virtues with which we decide what needs to be done, and fortitude gives us the strength to do it. A great president would combine experience with fortitude.
There was a third qualification the Founding Fathers hoped a candidate would meet, though it was never recorded in writing: he mustn’t display any desire to become a king. Here they were most fortunate: in the first go-round they had a candidate, a man of experience and fortitude, who had no sons—clearly a sign of divine providence. So they slept well at night, knowing that in creating the presidential office they were not creating a hereditary dynasty. There would be no string of Washingtons to follow.
There had never been a job like the presidency of the United States. All other countries were ruled by kings, queens, emperors, emirs, or other monarchs. Yet there would be no catalogue of presidential qualifications in the U.S. Constitution for the simple reason that “it was impossible to make a complete one,” asserted John Dickinson, who went on to say that the job would require “great Talents, Firmness and Abilities”—whatever they may be.4
“The first man at the helm,” said Benjamin Franklin, “will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” Everyone in the meeting room of the Constitutional Convention knew who he was talking about; the Convention’s chairman, Gen. George Washington, was sitting at a table in the front, facing everyone. Franklin continued: “The Executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”5 Despite objections that they were creating a government that would some day consist “only of an emperor and a few lordlings, surrounded by thousands of blood-suckers and cringing sycophants,” the delegates went ahead and ratified the new job position.6
In Federalist 69, Hamilton insisted there was nothing to worry about: “Executive authority, with few exceptions, is to be vested in a single magistrate. This will scarcely, however, be considered as a point upon which any comparison can be grounded; for if, in this particular, there is to be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.”7
Forget the governor of New York: the job of president eventually became much more akin to the job of grand seignior. During the Civil War Secretary of State William Seward offered this job description: “We elect a king for four years and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself.”8 After World War II the job expanded even more, to “leader of the free world” (though most citizens of the free world never voted for him).
The job description may change over the years, but traits of great leadership do not. Bookshelves groan under the weight of books on leadership and so-called secrets of effective people. What makes a great leader? Intellect, character, charisma, accomplishment, leadership, courage, wisdom, judgment . . . the list goes on and on. It’s impossible to list all the traits because we can’t know what future challenges the president will face and what particular strengths and skills will be called on. Every decision, every act of leadership takes place in context. The kind of leadership needed in times of crisis or great peril is different from the kind is needed in times of peace and economic prosperity. When choosing a president should we be looking for a rebel or someone who will maintain the present course? Do we go for a “Black Swan” risk taker, recognizing the possibility of failure, or do look for a more predictable executive? Every choice demands trade-offs.
Leadership is notoriously difficult to define and comes in many shapes and forms, and all great leaders are exceptions to any single rule. But there are certain qualifications we can pretty much agree a president of the United States should have, regardless of his political views. The most obvious one is accomplishment. The candidate should be a repeat high achiever, not a one-shot lucky wonder. Repeated success is a reasonable assurance that he can handle whatever surprise or unforeseen crisis may come his way as president. And his list of achievements (whatever they may be—career, political, financial, overcoming a personal handicap or near-death encounter) should include one that is of the magnitude he is sure to face in the Oval Office. It’s the difficult decisions he had better be good at. The easy ones rarely make it all the way to the president’s desk; they get solved by others.
A candidate with good judgment possesses the imagination to anticipate emerging issues and address them before they escalate into a crisis. He makes difficult decisions at just the right moment: not too soon, not too late. Just as fear and greed are the enemies of sound investing, they have no place in the presidency. A worthy candidate is not fearful of making a decision lest he be proven wrong, nor is he so greedy for the glory of appearing decisive that he acts without thorough consideration. (A third alternative—doing nothing—can sometimes be the best decision.)
Also important are the intangibles. To overcome the gridlock that characterizes Washington today, it is not enough to exhort others to be bipartisan; a president must demonstrate bipartisanship himself. This requires integrity. The best candidate combines personal humility with intense determination. By being incorruptible and honorable, he gains the respect and admiration of politicians on the other side of the aisle. He communicates his political goals with clarity: he is straightforward when need be and avoids being a flip-flopper. And he loves the give-and-take of politics, building personal relationships, and working with others to cut a deal. He has what is called “a fascination for the process”—an appreciation of the small details one must have in order to do a job well.
In his 1888 book The American Commonwealth, the British jurist and later ambassador to the United States James Bryce argued that aside from the heroes of the Revolution, the only president to display stellar qualities was Lincoln. Then Bryce asked a brilliant question: Would we know Lincoln today if he had not become president? No, he said. Of the eighteen presidents from James Monroe to Grover Cleveland, there was only one man who would still be remembered if he had never been president: Gen. Ulysses Grant, the war hero and most famous man of the nineteenth century.
“Why are great men not chosen president?” Bryce asked. His answer: “Great men have not often been chosen, first because great men are rare in politics; secondly, because the method of choice does not bring them to the top; thirdly, because they are not, in quiet times, absolutely needed.” He went on to explain what a president does and what we should look for:
A president need not be a man of brilliant intellectual gifts. His main duties are to be prompt and firm in securing the due execution of the laws and maintaining the public peace, careful and upright in the choice of the executive officials of the country. . . . Four-fifths of his work is the same in kind as that which devolves on the chairman of a commercial company or the manager of a railway, the work of choosing good subordinates, seeing that they attend to their business, and taking a sound practical view of such administrative questions as require his decision. Firmness, common cause, and most of all, honesty, an honesty above all suspicion of personal interest, are the qualities which the country chiefly needs in its first magistrate.9
More than a century later this is still an accurate statement. The best candidate will bring to the office a record of proven experience and fortitude. He must be strong, as the Founding Fathers noted, lest he become “but the minion of the Senate,” yet not abuse his power so that we end up in “a monarchy.”10 He will have demonstrated his strength either by overcoming adversity or by occupying a position of high power responsibly. The candidate will have proven his executive ability and leadership skills and have had experience in politics running for elective office. He will have the confidence borne of success, tempered by modesty and knowing that “no man could be found so far above all the rest in wisdom.”11 He will be a person of action, capable of “vigorous execution.”12 And, not least, he will conduct himself in a manner consistent with the symbolic importance of his office, evoking “dignity and respect.”13
Impossible to find such a candidate in the current population? Hardly. There were 3.9 million people in the United States in 1789, and 85 percent of them were ineligible to vote (voting being restricted to white males owning property). Today there are over 320 million people, and the great majority can vote. Out of such a vast pool, is it not reasonable to expect great presidents?
- See Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 1: 99–145.
- George Will, “Impulse, Meet Experience,” Washington Post, September 3, 2008.
- Federalist 1, 6, 72, 52, 15.
- John Dickinson, in Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 1: 123, 145.
- Benjamin Franklin, in Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 1: 103.
- Storing, The Complete Anti-Federalist, 3: 129.
- Federalist 69, paragraph 2.
- Novak, Choosing Presidents, 23.
- Bryce, The American Commonwealth, 1: 71–72, 74.
- Wilson, Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, 13: 341.
- Roger Sherman, in Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 1: 99.
- Federalist 70, paragraph 1.
- Washington, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2: 322.