The characteristics that make a great president

Democratic Devotions

Professional historians have consistently in the past 30 years listed the following five as “Great” presidents:

George Washington (federalist), Abraham Lincoln (republican), Thomas Jefferson (democrat), Franklin Roosevelt (democrat) and Woodrow Wilson (democrat).

Near greats have been: Theodore Roosevelt (republican), Harry Truman (democrat), Ronald Reagan (republican) and Lyndon Johnson (democrat).

Truman and Reagan have moved up in professional standing as time and study of their records and achievements have improved. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson is undergoing more erosion and critical comment and this illustrates key factors to evaluate in determining greatness. 

The first key historical guide is – did the leader accomplish major legislation? Franklin Roosevelt was the king of major legislation – Social Security, Bank Depositor Insurance, Stock Market Regulation, Ban on Child Labor and numerous Work Programs to ease the distress of depression. Lyndon Johnson is the second major legislative leader with more than 200 acts passed, including Voting Rights Act, Open Housing and Medicaid and Medicare.

A second evaluation/guide is leadership during a war. Four of the five top great Presidents guided U.S. during military conflict. Sadly, presidents that diligently worked to prevent war (John Adams, Jimmy Carter, Thomas Jefferson, JFK) often receive little gratitude from professional historians ranking them.

A third factor is breadth of vision – were the leaders moving with stream of freedom or rebelling against it? Did the leader elevate the constitutional debate or debase it? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are examples of fidelity to democratic virtues that set the loftiest standards. Lincoln’s dedication to union and liberation of oppressed people and the eloquent nobility of his words are an achievement rarely seen.

It helps if a leader has an interesting life of challenge and achievement both before and after his service in presidency and if he overcomes a major crisis or handicap.  All five of the ‘greats’ had major life achievements before presidency.

Temperament is crucial to greatness. Consider descriptive words associated with Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson – noble, courageous, determined, learned, hardworking, ‘can do’ attitude, charity, moderation, even-disposition. (It is noteworthy that both Washington and Lincoln struggled through life with sharp tempers, tongues, and persistently worked on a more diplomatic method of expression).  Likewise, Woodrow Wilson suffers. Wilson carried grudges, seldom forgave slights, was openly bigoted to blacks and considered himself as perfectly in tune with the Almighty while his critics were deemed by him as evil, ignorant, and malicious.

Temperament/lack of stability and sheer hatred of critics obliterated Richard Nixon’s significant achievements and doom him to being a great failure among presidents.

This should cause us pause and reflect on our current presidential choices. Ask yourself: Who enhances freedom? Who elevates the debate? Who seems of a charitable demeanor?

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