Presidential Character

In the climax to the movie An American President, the fictional President, played by Michael Douglas, tells a spellbound press conference that having been in office for more than three years, he has come to believe “without hesitation [that] being President of this country is entirely about character.”

At least since the publication of James David Barber’s ground-breaking 1972 study, Presidential Character, we have recognized that a President’s values, needs, attitudes, and emotional and intellectual capacities — the attributes that collectively define his or her “character” — play an enormous role in the course, tenor and outcome of his Presidency. George Washington’s unbending integrity, dignity and moral rectitude defined our first President’s Administration as fully as Richard Nixon’s insecurity, duplicity and cynicism defined his failed Presidency.

Much has been written about our current President’s failings, and it is not my intention simply to recount his ethical, moral and intellectual inadequacies here. However, as we enter the most active phase of a campaign in which the nominee of the Republican Party seeks reelection — and, by doing so, essentially asks us either to ignore or endorse the fitness of his character — it may be instructive to consider a few observations on the subject of character made by the first Republican to be elected President. In setting out below just a sampling of President Lincoln’s thoughts and observations on character, I offer no accompanying commentary. His words, and their present-day relevance, speak for themselves:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

“I would rather be a little nobody, then to be an evil somebody.”

“You can tell the greatness of a man by what makes him angry.”

“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”

“I am very little inclined on any occasion to say anything unless I hope to produce some good by it.”

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

I do not know whether our next President will possess the qualities of character that President Lincoln admired and sought to emulate. I only know that our current President does not.

As we consider the choice that we face on November 2, we might do well to consider a final observation of President Lincoln: “America,” he predicted, “will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”



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