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Presidents bring their character with them to office
Monday, 15 June 2020 16:12
Special to the Daily Planet

Not everybody is cut out to be president of the United States.

The great ones had something special; the failures had something unfortunate. These “somethings” weren’t fuzzy and subjective. Each man’s fate was decided by traits of character.

Last month, Public Television (PBS) dedicated two segments of their history series, “American Experience,” to George W. Bush. It’s a remarkable tour of his life to now, from the overprivileged kid to a guy with a presidential library. Most of the facts are common knowledge. What’s new is the vivid picture of the man, who he was and is.

I spent part of a morning in his Sherry Lane office in Dallas back 30 years ago.  He was involved with a local charity that needed a name, and that was my shingle.  (“Hearts and Hammers” is still operating.)  He was not yet a politician; I knew him as the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team who sat every night by the home dugout and participated on talk radio shows. 

I was just a hired hand, but he treated me with great respect. He set me behind his personal desk to do my work. We chatted about his baseball team’s confusing name.

He impressed me as a sweet man, somewhat slow on the uptake, but kind and genuine. If I’d been asked about him as a possible president, I’d probably have said what PBS showed: terrific as campaigner, not so terrific as president.

George W. Bush was well-intentioned like few presidents have been, but as president, his sincerity became naivete.  His interpersonal skills were useless in the hour of decision. He was a terrible judge of people’s ability for a task, and he trusted plotters, men with their own designs.

And the presidency created in him a new trait of character:  stubbornness. He couldn’t bring himself to say, “Boy, I messed that up. Let’s try something else.”

It’s relatively easy to look back on 45 presidents and analyze just what “something” they brought with them to the presidency, traits that enabled or disabled them.

Lincoln was patient, good-natured and as one historian noted, the least egotistical man ever to rise to high office. Washington was a master at conciliation. Truman separated right and wrong and decided with finality. Theodore Roosevelt was determined and peaceable. Franklin Roosevelt surrounded himself with a “brain trust,” the best advisers he could find.

The Founding Fathers knew they didn’t want a king, but that’s all. Article II of the Constitution is a jumble of words and ideas, almost a stream of consciousness – commanding the military, pardoning, vetoing, appointing, negotiating with foreign powers, receiving dignitaries.

They had assumptions that the people would choose well in electing a president – but they worried. Madison wrote:‘The hope is that [those elected] will be…patriotic and just, chosen due to their virtues….But, on the other hand, the reverse could happen. People of sinister designs might wangle their way into office.” And Hamilton wrote that “a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper…. despotic in his ordinary demeanor” could be elected. 

History measures the past.  We look back and judge. We can’t know if Hamilton would have been a good president because he was killed. He had too many pluses and minuses for us to guess.

So it is with Donald Trump. Will time show his pinball foreign policy as long-term success or disaster? What will result from his style of blaming, not leading?  Perhaps a realization that the Constitution needs to be redefined four our time. We can’t know.

Nor can we know how Joe Biden’s traits of character will fit well to his presidency.  I like a lot about him. I think he will try hard to heal our many divisions, especially perhaps the relationship of president to Congress. 

As we approach November, each of us should weigh traits of character and discern who is the right man for the job.
Lee Ballard is a published semanticist and lexicographer who lives in Mars Hill.




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