Posted: February 21, 2019
hen the American people elevated George Washington to the presidency, they knew that because of his achievements, character, and virtues, they were elevating the presidency to him. Just as music has degenerated from Mozart to rap, so has the presidency since the election of the last adult president 30 years ago, and now the final stages of competition for the highest office are given over to demagogues, dynastics, and dolts.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the presidency rises to our standards when we improve, and sinks to them when we decay. Which is another way of saying that in a democracy and even a democratic republic the fish rots not from the head down but from the body up. Though likely hopeless—because the ability to become president diverges so radically from the ability to be president—it should not be unreasonable for citizens to demand a higher standard and lay out its elements. Among 330 million people, you would think there would be at least one in whom these two abilities would coincide.
The skill to politic, manipulate, obfuscate, and evade, and talent in raising money, using people, tossing them overboard, and eating one’s young are assumed—unless a president obtains his position after a turnip truck overturns on Pennsylvania Avenue or a circus cannon accidentally shoots him through a window of the Oval Office (this may actually have happened). Keeping in mind that implied deficiencies fully pertain to both parties, consider some qualities a president should embody:
Reticence and Restraint. A president must strengthen the currency of his remarks by speaking rarely and concisely. Should he be royally enchanted by his own voice, as happens, he poisons the natural order of precedence in a republic. Should he activate his powers indiscriminately, promiscuously, on impulse, or without careful economy, it means he doesn’t comprehend either the risks or the correlation of forces in the challenges he faces. If because he mismanages valid powers he then exceeds his constitutional limitations due to what he presents as the force majeure of superior morals acting upon a flexible Constitution, he is doubly guilty.
Humility. The nation’s capital reeks of false humility the way it once did of tanneries. This is because politicians are actually an inferior species that, though it knows it is expected to have genuine humility, does not. They learn from their successes that they are great, and from their failures that the world is insufficiently appreciative of their brilliance. In my view, this makes nearly all of them certifiable, which in turn makes accusations in this regard against President Trump moot other than as a matter of degree. (That no such accusations were leveled against President Obama was like a reverse miracle of the loaves.)
In regard to anyone who upon lifting his finger can move armies and fleets, humility enables the recognition that no matter what he does or decides, some or many will suffer and some or many may die; that his judgments may be wrong, and yet he must make them; that the matters he judges have passed through filter after filter until the flesh and blood from which they are pressed appear as merely abstract; that life is tragedy, unavoidably; and that if, like so many of his predecessors, he does not suffer what Winston Churchill called “stress of soul,” not only has he failed, but he is dangerous.
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Deep and Disciplined Learning. As the academy has proven beyond a doubt, learning is neither wisdom nor intelligence nor common sense. These qualities, however, are wonderfully amplified by an internally held stock of knowledge and practice in judging its truth and value. Although he may be an expert in one thing or another, a president must have more than a passing acquaintance with history, economics, the Constitution, law, military strategy, science, and, yes, literature, for it is the glass of human nature. And familiarity with it might also prompt a chief executive to murder in their cradles the products of painfully mediocre speechwriters, whose groaning platitudes and clichés cheapen discourse, numb behinds, and circle about the point like a drunk trying to thread a needle.
When a president wildly misstates facts, cannot speak grammatically, repeats himself like an obsessive compulsive parrot, and draws a blank at the mention of arcane historical examples such as the American Revolution or the Second World War, one begins to wonder, breathlessly. Woodrow Wilson was a chronically supercilious scholar, and it didn’t do the nation any good. A president need not be a scholar, but only to have been curious early on about what is in the world and how it works, and to have labored long and hard to satisfy that curiosity in the light of truth. Only that will augment his other qualities sufficiently to deal with the great array of problems he faces at the highest level.
Courage. Courage is in many ways its own learning of the other virtues. It enables one to see and follow truth when immense pressures and forces are arrayed against it. It allows adherence to sound and fundamental principles that have been abandoned or betrayed, and it blesses defiance of external, spiritual, and circumstantial enemies that inspire others to surrender. Perhaps most of all, courage enables a president to reckon with the most important thing he must know: that his is a sacrificial office. For a president cannot be worthy or good unless he understands that despite his personal privileges, the fawning, and the awe, in light of his responsibilities his person has been reduced to nil. To see clearly, he must in his own eyes account for nothing. This, the true mark of greatness, is most difficult, we have not seen it in a long time, we are not likely to see it soon, and we certainly do not see it now.