Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Quick now, pull out a pad and pencil and list the qualifications for President of the United States.

Executive ability? Experience in foreign policy issues? Street smarts? Being a good lawyer? Legislator? A great and innovative business executive? Growing up with privilege and status? Or a humble background? You name it.

The problem is, the more you analyze the question the more difficult it is to come up with a satisfactory answer.

Back in my early graduate school days, Richard Neustadt published a brilliant study of the presidency – Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership. As one moves through his book, it becomes clearer and clearer that there are no hard and fast qualifications for the presidency like there may be, for example, for a computer specialist, an intellectual property lawyer, a teacher, or a bricklayer. What we are looking for is someone with the very subtle art of leadership and a reasonably clear idea of where he wants to go. After all, when it comes right down to it, the president does not actually perform the myriad tasks required to govern a country – he/she inspires and leads others who do the actual work.

Let’s look at two back to back presidents, one a total failure, the other perhaps our greatest president. James Buchanan took office in 1857. Buchanan was a college graduate and a great lawyer. He served five terms in the House of Representatives, then was appointed Minister to Russia. He then served ten years in the Senate after which he became President Polk’s Secretary of State and President Pierce’s Minister to Russia. Yet, he is considered by virtually every student of the presidency as one of the worst president’s.

Lincoln, on the other hand, just couldn’t get it all together politically. He went to school for only a year and was largely self taught. Here is a long list of failures: Failed in business at the tender age of 31 – defeated for the legislature at 32 – failed again at business at 34 – had a nervous breakdown at 36 – defeated for election at 38 – defeated for Congress three times in a row – defeated for Vice-President, and defeated for Senate twice. His total experience was eight years in a frontier legislature and one term in Congress. We would crucify him were he running for election today. Or would we?

I know I am not helping you very much, I just can’t provide a checklist of qualifications for president. We are looking for something much more subtle – a confidence that he/ she knows how to lead others and knows where we need to go and the best way to get there.

Ninety-five percent of what we hear is probably irrelevant and misleading. We instead need to look carefully for that knowledgeable grin, that twinkle in the eyes, that toughness of approach, that indescribable nod of the head that shows you that he/ she knows what’s up. Like Barack Obama’s. But of course you need to make up your own mind on that!