When I read I am always trying to learn. In particular, I try to take practical, actionable lessons from my reading, especially when reading biographies. Recently, I was thinking about what would make a truly great president, and since I have read quite a few presidential biographies, I considered what I have learned from them, and what specific lessons I have taken from them. I came up with a list of 5 traits that I have admired in U.S. presidents over the history of the presidency as they related to the five presidents that I think best expressed those traits
- John Adams’ character. Of all presidents, I admire John Adams most for his character and integrity. The most obvious display of this was when he agreed to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and used his formidable intelligence and legal prowess to either get the soldiers acquitted, or greatly reduced sentences. He put the rule of law above all else, believing that it was strict adherence to the rule of law that provided a strong foundation for any form of government. He took on the defense knowing that it could make him unpopular among Bostonians, but he did so because it was the right thing to do; there was never any real choice in the matter for him. His diaries and writings are filled with similar (if not so spectacular) examples of character. One of my favorite Adams’ stories can be found in David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams:
Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to know who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “Sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sign again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greatest philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.
- John Quincy Adams‘ intelligence and introspection. Given what I have read about JQA, as well as what I have read that JQA has written himself, particularly in his vast lifelong diaries, it is my opinion that he was most intelligent president we have had to date. I can’t think of a single president comes that exceeds JQA’s intellectual ability, although a few come close. I’ve written in the past how I admire really smart people, so this should come as no surprise. But I’ve also been heavily influenced by JQA’s introspection. His diaries read like person never satisfied with the status quo, always striving to improve himself in one way or another. Perhaps because I am the same way–my diaries are frequently filled with frustrations about why I am not better at something than I want to be, or that I am constantly trying to improve, even upon things I am good at–that I admire this trait so much in JQA.
- Abraham Lincoln’s writing and wit. There are many traits one could take from Lincoln, but the ones that I most admire in him was his way with words, both in his writing and his wit. Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln is filled with stories Lincoln told, often witty or humorous, to help make some point. It seemed like any subject reminded him of something. I admire his writing for its compactness and brevity. He could say with fewer words more than many could say in volumes, and do so with an elegance and style that has no equal that I can think of for that time. Many times when I am writing and feel as if I am going on and on, adding words for the sake of words, I ask myself how Lincoln might treat this subject.
- Theodore Roosevelt’s energy and breadth of knowledge. I remember reading in one of TR biographies (I’ve read a few) that at some point in his life, TR was convinced he was going to die at 60, and indeed, he was 60 years old when he died. I don’t think this was a self-fulfilling prophecy so much as a man who burned his energy fiercely throughout his adult life. How he went from a sickly child, to the rough woodsman, hunter and naturalist is one of the more amazing transformations in presidential history–one that it told particularly well in David McCulloughs’ Mornings on Horseback. But it is TR’s breadth of knowledge that astounds me. John Quincy Adams may be the most intelligent and intellectually gifted president we’ve ever had, but TR was, as far as I can tell, the only polymath to serve as president (Jefferson might be close in this regard). I’ve often argued that there is no previous training or experience that can possibly prepare one to be president. It is a unique job. That said, a polymath like TR, who has a wide-ranging experience, provides an example of what a suitor to the presidency should look like.
- Franklin Roosevelt’s natural ability to lead. People love or hate FDR. He has many flaws, as most people do (presidential flaws tend to be more public than most). But despite those flaws, he had a gift for leadership. He led the U.S. out of a depression, and through a World War the likes of which the world had never seen before. And in between, he did the business of managing the affairs of a rapidly growing nation. The nation hadn’t seen such a leader before. Washington and Lincoln were great leaders, but there was something about FDR, his ability to relate directly to a wide variety of people, that puts him a step above all of the others in my book. The lessons I’d like to take from FDR are those leadership lessons, and though I’ve read many FDR biographies, those lesson elude me–and I think it was because it was a natural gift, like John Quincy Adams’ intellect, or Theodore Roosevelt’s energy.
It occurred to me, having outlined these traits, that my ideal president would combine all five of them: high moral character, intelligence and introspection, a good and witty communicator, high energy and an unusual breadth of knowledge, and finally, a natural ability to lead. In some ways, this describes Roman rulers that I have read about, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a president that combines all of these traits, and I’m not sure we ever will.
In the meantime, I do my best to learn from these men, to take practical lessons and constantly try to improve myself and align myself with these traits. In some places I’ve had moderate success. In other areas, will alone doesn’t seem to be enough. Natural ability is the missing ingredient. Even so, I try.
Written on August 30, 2022.
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