by Jeff Polet
I think it’s safe to say that Americans have a tortured relationship with their presidents. Readers may know that under the Articles of Confederation, there was no chief executive in the modern sense, only a “president” who served as a member and under the control of Congress. The establishment of an independent executive was simultaneously the most important and most controversial innovation of the constitutional convention. Granted, the framers of the Constitution could look to the states for a model in their respective governors, but that didn’t prevent critics such as Patrick Henry from worrying that Article II “squint[ed] at monarchy.”
While the critics expressed their skepticism that an independent executive was consistent with the principles of republican politics, Hamilton argued for its necessity and that it should be the locus of “energy” in the system. “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” he wrote, because of its ability both to respond quickly in crises and to rise above factional politics. Key to Hamilton’s defense of the office was his belief that the president would not be a member of a political party in the usual sense.
Hamilton, along with Gouverneur Morris were the key advocates for a strong executive. It was Hamilton and not Madison who, in The Federalist Papers, defended the creation of Article II. The latter would go on and become president himself, and his relation to the power he exercised could best be described as ambiguous. Hamilton’s commitment to executive power derived in part from his experience as Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. That experience permanently shaped Hamilton’s model of good government: responsive, energetic, centralized, and able to accomplish enormous tasks. And an energetic body needed the right kind of head.
Experience had provided Hamilton with an ideal model. George Washington is America’s greatest president—indeed, its greatest historical figure. He is the indispensable man, the person without whom this project of large-scale republicanism never gets out of the gate. Part of Washington’s appeal was his willingness to walk away from power just at the moment he had the best opportunity to consolidate it. His heroic stand at Newburgh remains one of the central moments in American history. Always conscious of how character played before others, Washington studiously cultivated an ideal model of leadership, one that so filled his compatriots with confidence that they willingly wrote a poorly thought-through second article because they knew they could trust Washington with its power.
As Madison noted, however, enlightened statesmen would not always be at the helm—an insight he understated because history has validated the suspicion that enlightened statesmen will seldom be at the helm. Our disappointment shouldn’t deter us from accepting the proposition, however: without at least some competent leaders our system should have perished long ago. Congress has never been a reliable instrument for stabilizing the system or for promoting the public weal. In many ways, anti-federalist worries about the executive have been validated. If the central design of the office is to locate within government a largely unchecked power to respond to crises, it didn’t take long for presidents to regard ordinary historical events as crises. The invocation of “crisis” has been a constant temptation in our politics and has led, more than anything, to the enormous overreach of executive power. At least half the population will endorse the extensive grasping because they like what gets done with it. As a result, our politics vacillates between the poles established by an electorate who will endorse and oppose policies depending on their allegiance to the party of the chief executive. Our elections, in turn, become enormously high-stake competitions in the middle of what is typically a made-up crisis, for the fact remains that presidents seldom face actual crises.
Consumed as they often are with their “place in history,” and mindful of the fact that great crises make for great presidents, the temptation to gin up a crisis proves nearly irresistible. Few presidents will acknowledge either the limits of their power or the fact they live in propitious times. We end up in the weirdly pathological world where presidents will in one circumstance try to convince us that things are worse than they are and in another tell us we’re better off than we think. Neither is likely to be true, but the truth seldom proves to be useful.
Some presidents do in fact face critical situations. Machiavelli drew our attention to the relationship between fortuna and virtu, between what time and circumstance offer one and the skill one demonstrates in responding. Voters will detect whether a president controls the age or is controlled by it. So many historical figures have been defeated by fortuna that one is inclined to see no shame in it; it’s the rare ones whose virtu triumphs that get our attention. Most presidents are far more notable for their mistakes, which are legion, than for their successes, which are few.
Washington’s presidency is a breathtaking record of success in no small part because he established the legitimacy of the office itself. Jefferson’s presidency mattered because he managed to maintain that hard-won legitimacy in the middle of a viciously partisan election. Lincoln upheld the office in the middle of our nation’s greatest crisis, and in the process expanded its power. In other words, there are times when the object of the exercise of presidential authority is to sustain presidential authority itself.
No serious person will argue that the presidency of Gerald Ford was as consequential as that of George Washington, or that he was as great a president as Washington or Lincoln. He did, however, restore the legitimacy of the office and trust in it in a time of skepticism and disorder, and these are no mean feats. I can’t help but be struck, however, when walking through the Ford museum, by one other similarity between Washington and Ford, and it’s a similarity that tells us much about the what we expect from our leaders.
Washington was fearless in battle. He often rode at the head of his troops, inspiring fear and awe, and wonder in the British troops who could hardly believe what they were seeing. On one occasion he rode directly into a crossfire, batting down the barrels of guns with his sword to keep his troops from firing upon one another. The devotion he inspired resulted in no small part from the fact that he would never ask a common soldier to do something he wouldn’t do or hadn’t done himself. This willingness to put himself in harm’s way generated an admiration that resulted in love and a readiness to follow. Courage is one of the cardinal virtues, and courage is our capacity to face danger without reckless engagement or craven retreat. We should neither run from danger nor seek it. But sometimes danger attaches itself to the defense of something we love, as was the case for Ford in the Second World War. Although Ford could probably have avoided military service, his sense of duty and patriotism wouldn’t allow for it. More tellingly, after having volunteered for service he also insisted he be assigned to the most dangerous part of the ship: the fantail gunnery. There he distinguished himself for his steadfastness and cool head. These are qualities people notice and are inspired by; they will in turn dedicate themselves to the service of the person who demonstrates such qualities. For all our talk about leadership, the fact is that there are precious few leaders because most people will avoid the kinds of risks essential to genuine leadership. Neither can people lead from a couch or a cubicle: leadership requires getting ones hands dirty.
It takes no leadership skill to give people what they already want or to invite them to tasks they’re already inclined toward. It takes tremendous qualities of strength and character to get people to do what’s unnatural and manifestly against their interests, especially the interest of self-preservation; and people will only do this if they are led by example. Washington and Ford both understood the power of example, a power often misunderstood by those whose approach to politics is more calculating—a misunderstanding clearly revealed by those who objected to Ford’s pardon of Nixon.
President’s Day brings with it a reminder of the qualities we must associate with leaders as well as the ones we should avoid. Pandering, indulging passions, telling people what they want to hear, paying off a client class, rewarding friends, and punishing enemies — these are not the qualities of leaders. Service, selflessness, risk-taking, an unwillingness to hold yourself above those you lead, believing that nothing and no one is beneath you—those are the qualities that inspire people.
- Can you ever really trust someone who hasn’t risked his or her life for something other than him or herself?
- What’s the relationship between character and trust? How does power affect that?
- What are the limitations of assessing someone’s character when we haven’t experienced it first-hand? How important are reliable modes of mediating information about people we choose to be our leaders?
- Are leaders chosen by voters or by circumstances?