Qualities of Leaders

GWcrossing.jpgAh, Presidents’ Day. Although some people believe that the holiday was created to sell television sets or electric guitars and others believe that it was an efficient combining of the birthdays of our 1st and 16th presidents, February 22nd and February 14th, I was brought up differently.

I attended elementary school in Virginia, where the date was a reminder of the fertility of the Old Dominion State for the production of presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. I attended high school in Massachusetts, where the Bay State’s contributions to the presidency, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and John Kennedy, were recognized on that date. (I’ll note that Calvin Coolidge was born in Vermont but grew up in Massachusetts and George H. W. Bush was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Connecticut…until he more famously became a Texas oilman.)

I always had favorite presidents, and for specific reasons or perceived qualities of character. When I was younger, it was George Washington, who couldn’t tell a lie, and Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and Teddy Roosevelt, who started the national parks. As I got older, I got a little more sophisticated, or at least I felt more so, and admired Franklin Roosevelt, for bringing us together during the depression and war, Harry Truman, for taking over in the middle of a challenge and wrapping things up, and Lyndon Johnson, for twisting the necessary arms to achieve passage of the civil rights legislation.

So, in a sort of Tracyesque post, I’m interested in hearing other people’s favorite presidents, or perhaps more specifically, the traits or actions for which you admire them. It seems like an appropriate, and timely, way to celebrate Presidents’ Day.


  1. kiffi summa said:

    Oh, fun……
    George Washington was NOT a favorite of mine because of the omnipresent Gilbert Stuart portrait of him in every grade school classroom; why was he always watching me wherever I sat in the room?

    Thomas Jefferson, certainly; although he seemed a model of enlightenment and creativity, he certainly was a man of his times as far as his slave-holding. So, A God-like human? A very human American God?

    Being an Illinoisan, we were steeped in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln; I have always revered this tortured man who led the country through its violent growing pains with both brilliance and an iron fist, writing some of the most meaningful words an American president has done, to this day.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was President when I was a very small child but who was endlessly discussed by my aunts and uncles, at Sunday Dinners at my parents house, around the same table that “lives” in my dining room today.
    But I’m so old, that from then on they are not Presidents studied, but “lived”.

    One more very important one that we were cheated out of, Bobby Kennedy.
    Who knows what might have happened if he, who seemed at the time to have gone through an epiphany of fire, had been given a chance to lead.

    In conclusion, what I admire most in a leader, is the honest contradictions and complexity of their humanity, addressed in the process of decision making.

    February 18, 2008
  2. Ray Cox said:

    My favorite President is Teddy Roosevelt. He was truly a remarkable man with wide ranging interests and abilities. He was the Nations youngest President becoming President when McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt was a real leader of the Republican party, and worked hard to bring in progressive ideals. He was very tough on monopolistic corporations and didn’t have any time for the extremely wealth business leaders of the time.
    He was a real conservation leader for our Nation at a time when it needed guidance on environmental issues.
    Teddy Roosevelt broke with Republican party folks of the time and lost the Republican nomination for the 1912 election to William Howard Taft. Roosevelt ran in the 1912 election anyway, in the Bull Moose Party. He was a bit of a spoiler of that day in that he pulled many progressive thinking Republicans away from Taft, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election.
    After that loss at the polls he organized a party and went exploring in South America. That effort is outlined in a book River of Doubt….a fantastic read. It is amazing to me to think that less than 100 years ago a former United States President set out into uncharted jungle areas, facing significant risk of disease and death. I highly recommend the book.

    February 18, 2008
  3. Griff Wigley said:

    In yesterday’s NY Times, some of the above mentioned favorites are discussed: The Charisma Mandate.

    A “cult of personality” can help a leader be effective. But it has some built-in problems.

    February 18, 2008
  4. Curt Benson said:

    A few years ago I went on of jag of Civil War/ Lincoln reading. I came to admire Lincoln so much that when reading one biography when I got to the part where he was going to be assassinated (hey, no surprise, there, of course) I had to put the book down. I just couldn’t stand it.

    This almost entirely self educated man wrote the most powerful speech ever, his second inaugural. It’s a history lesson, poetic and chock- a- block with truth. It is worth reading today.


    February 18, 2008
  5. Patrick Enders said:

    My choice for greatest President would be FDR.

    To be a good leader (or President), I believe one needs great ideas, as well as the ability to inspire others to implement them.

    To be a great leader (or President), one needs to be a good leader, facing (and overcoming) a great challenge. FDR dealt with two great crises, and did so brilliantly. Lincoln falls in the same camp, and for me is a close second for greatest President.

    February 18, 2008
  6. Steve Wilmot said:

    In a similar vein to Kiffi’s post, I can’t get too excited about any president’s that I have lived through, and being younger this really goes from Carter onward. Partisanship aside, I can’t see any of these rising to a Mt. Rushmore level, or similar elevation.

    All the presidents mentioned by others above are certainly worthy. I have been particularly impressed by Presidential advice given after much experience has been gained in office. Washington warning us of becoming entangled in alliances, and particularly Eisenhower warning us of the military-industrial complex.

    Does anyone else have any interesting presidential insights?

    February 18, 2008
  7. Curt Benson said:

    I like Truman also. Truman was an unathletic kid with thick glasses who grew up in the library reading history. He said he could remember about everything he read.

    There is a story about when Truman became president after FDR’s death. FDR had left Truman totally out of the loop. FDR’s east coast, Ivy leaguer advisers were lecturing Truman on the problems in the mid east. Truman thought they were being condescending to him, the midwestern rube. Fed up, he went to the front of the room and delivered a lecture complete with hand drawn maps, names and dates tracing the the entire history of the mideast, from ancient to current times. FDR’s guys were humbled.

    Also, there was a story in “Plain Speaking” that I liked. IRRC, a secret service man who had served with Truman said that he admired Truman so much, he wished he had a father like him. I think that for someone who spent so much time with Truman, watching how he acted in private and public moments, to have that opinion is notable.

    There is a great story about Truman’s reaction to a critic’s view on Truman’s daughter’s attempted singing career. It’s not exactly the Second Inaugural,
    but it’s cool in it’s own way:


    February 18, 2008
  8. Rob Hardy said:

    I find Theodore Roosevelt the most fascinating, and I’ve read the most about him. I agree with what Ray says about him, although I don’t admire so much Roosevelt’s warmongering. He won a Nobel Peace Prize, but he seemed to love the idea of going to war. But he’s a fascinating figure, and the one President I’ve actually published an essay about:


    I guess, in general, my favorite Presidents are the ones on Mount Rushmore, although I have a soft spot for Grover Cleveland. He and Teddy Roosevelt worked together, though they were of different parties, when Cleveland was governor of New York and TR was a state legislator. Cleveland was the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms and the first post-Civil War Democratic President. I love the name for the Republicans who crossed over to support him in the 1884 election: “mugwumps.” (Mark Twain was a mugwump.) I love the fact that, because he was a bachelor when he took office, he asked his lesbian sister to serve as First Lady (I’ve published an essay about her, too, also in the New England Review). There are other interesting things about Cleveland, but I’ll leave you to discover them on your own.

    February 18, 2008
  9. kiffi summa said:

    The link Curt gives in his post, regarding Truman’s letter to the reviewer of his daughter’s concert, is an active memory for me. I was 14 that year, and as usual that letter occasioned a lot of dinner table discussion. My parents, one republican and one democrat, and my grandmother who lived with us ( an intensely fervent democrat) all agreed that it endeared Pres. Truman to them as it was a fearless example of supportive parenting, which one should not give up, even if they were the President of the United States of America.
    You can be sure I stored this adult commentary away for future use, as needed.

    February 18, 2008
  10. Curt Benson said:

    Kiffi, come to think of it, there’s an analogous situation now–Clinton’s reaction to an MSNBC commentator saying the Clintons had “pimped ” out their daughter. (way more offensive that the music critic’s remarks, I think)

    However, I bet that before Clinton’s public response, she ran her response past some advisers, who helped her craft it for just the right effect. I’m sure no one looked at Truman’s letter before it hit the mail box.


    February 19, 2008

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