Leadership is one tough-to-figure art. That's why the Constitution devotes only a few hundred words to describing the president's job, and fewer still—not one—to the kind of person the chief exec ought to be. But take heart. We've figured out what makes a fellow worth following.
Our leader-of-the-free-world specs come without reference to public policy. Great presidents can believe in big government or in small, and they can be born on Park Avenue or among the amber waves. We're fed up with the sneers, with the divisive polemics about who's a slacker because he didn't serve and who's a hero because he did.
Mostly, we're impatient with insinuations that liberals don't believe in family and conservatives don't believe in civil rights. Our studies show that millions of people in Massachusetts have values and millions more in Texas have brains.
Here are some qualities of mind and heart that will serve our republic well from either side of the aisle. And if you can't find these virtues in either candidate, don't despair. You can always try them out at home.
A Seeking Mind The president need not be brilliant. But he needs a seeking mind, a hunger for information, and a skepticism regarding the things about which he's most sure. As much as we need someone strong, we also need someone whose character is, in Plutarch's phrase, softened by study and thought. Ignorance is no crime; pride in ignorance is. A man ought to be interested in what he doesn't know.
A Compass for Common Ground A taste for confrontation is a beautiful thing—in the House of Representatives. But the presidency is too important to go to a guy who likes an argument, who cherishes a chance to mock the other team.
Ours is a boisterous country, teeming with perfectly good people who feel, for lots of different reasons, aggrieved. Sometimes it's because their new business is getting crushed by taxes and regulations, and sometimes it's because they can't marry the person they love.
But the president should be willing to at least act as though he, to borrow Clinton's phrase, feels their pain. In these argumentative times, a sense that we all can reason together is precious.
A Disintrest in Power George Washington is often compared with Cincinnatus, the Roman consul/gentleman farmer who was happily tilling his field in 458 B.C. when the call came that his Empire needed his leadership. He put aside his plow for a couple of weeks, thwarted the invaders, and then returned to tend his patch. In other words, he lived to serve.
We want another president like our first one, a guy who takes no pleasure in his clout. "Washington's charisma," wrote historian Garry Wills, "came from a prominently displayed eagerness to transcend itself; he gained power from his readiness to give it up." There is no better way to earn the people's trust than truly to be their servant.
A Taste of Our Story Sure, plenty of countries believe they have a special destiny. But there's one crucial difference between our version of chauvinism and theirs: Ours makes sense. There's never been a country as extravagant—for better and for worse—as ours.
And so, our president should be enthused about the American story, and savor the unique epic of all those people coming from all those places and building all those lives in all those hollows and surging cities. He should be in-his-bones proud that we've saved the world from the barbarians three times and that we've spent a goodly slice of our fortune helping people who have less. He should know the names of all the small mountain ranges in Utah and Maine. He should be knowledgeable about Lewis and Clark.
An Acceptance of Our Trespasses Too often, the enthusiasm for our legend described above makes us reluctant to confess our sins. There's a sense that if we admit our faults, our virtues will be lost in recrimination.
Wrong. Our top man should have a clear-eyed sense of what we've done. Yes, our republic was born in genocide. And yes, we have been guilty of racism, institutional and otherwise. And yes, our companies have been rapacious, and yes again, we have often endorsed tyrants as long as they were our guys. But that was then. Now we're working hard to be better.
We need a leader who is both inspired and chastened by what we've done, who can take the verdict of history. We can do better. And we will.
A Way with the Language Great leaders aren't always silver-tongued. Thomas Jefferson had a speech impediment and was so shy and reluctant to speak in public that he passed on delivering the State of the Union address in person.
But verbal gifts are potent presidential add-ons, especially nowadays. Rightly deployed, language can exalt a people: See Lincoln at Gettysburg, FDR during the Depression, Kennedy in his inaugural, Reagan as the Soviet Union came undone. Our leader can use it to soften sorrow, to rally the troops, to summon—what was that phrase?—the better angels of our nature. Nothing fancy is required, but the bully pulpit is often a pastoral one, and it's a comfort if the president can stir our spirits.
An Admiration of the People Johnson didn't trust us enough to tell the truth about Vietnam. Nor did Nixon when he invaded Cambodia. Reagan faltered when he secretly funded the Contras. Above all, the president has an obligation to be an honest broker, to rely on our wisdom—even if it's not, well, wise.
Andrew Jackson got it right in his 1829 State of the Union when he hoped that his errors might "find remedy in the harmony and wisdom of your counsels." Hell yeah, the people can be wrong. They endorsed slavery for years. But the president should give us a chance to disagree with him and try to win us over before making a unilateral Daddy's decision in the interest of the family.
A Belief in Hardware For the first time in centuries, there is but one nation-state that can assert its military will with little fear of defeat. That's both a dangerous fact and an opportunity. The president needs the gumption to use that power when its deployment can save lives or lead to a safer world. Hamlet would have been a lousy president, what with all the to-being and not-to-being. On occasion, the president needs the strength to use our power, to force the moment to its crisis. But he also needs an extreme reluctance to do so, derived in part from...
A Belief in Software Power is one thing; authority is another. Our missiles are an asset, to be sure. But the other great American asset is what we are, all the things we believe, our commitment to freedom, our passion for prosperity, our openness, our ingenuity, our drive, our hope.
To use our fist, the great thump, without maxing out the power of our character and ideas is not just morally wrong, it's also bad strategy. The president should believe in talking and teaching, in diplomacy and partnership, in patient solutions that might obviate the need for sudden ones.
A Love for the Future People on the left worry too much—as in, "Good God, the ozone's gone and we'll be toast by the weekend!" And people on the right worry too little—as in, "What are a few civil liberties if we catch more terrorists?"
The president should be a careful optimist. He needs to stand tall on behalf of generations to come. This doesn't always mean choosing trees over capitalism; the future can be enhanced by enterprise as well as by clean air. But in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, who set aside national parks for our children's children, the top guy ought to fret over our elk and geysers as much as our institutions and credit rating.
A Willingness to Change Course Somehow, changing your mind has become a sign of weakness. A flip-flopper is the lowest form of sniveling weasel, unqualified to babysit the kids. A real man sticks to his guns, you see. But isn't changing your mind also a sign of . . . what's the word? . . . oh yeah, brains? Doesn't an intelligent person get feedback from the consequences of a decision and assess whether he was right, or maybe, just maybe . . . what's that word? . . . oh yeah, wrong! Steadfast = good. Stubborn = bad.
And Gravitas Sure, humor's good. Press conferences need not be dull. But behind the wit, we need a deeply serious person, a person who is both humbled by his obligations and flat-out determined to meet them, a person who is at home in a high-stakes arena, who is emboldened, even strengthened, by our faith in him. We seek a person with more courage and love than most of us, a hero with a big, brave heart.
Of course, campaigns are designed to conceal the candidate. But if you can erase the quick-twitch assumptions about each man and look past the snarl, the occasional unscripted moment is revealing. You may catch a glimmer of the leader we seek—in an expression of derision or affection, a telling phrase, a moment of impatience or forbearance.
Resist cynicism, if you've got the stones. Love our country enough to keep working on her. Vote.