Leading the way: Presidential leadership (CBS Sunday Morning)
CBS News: LEADING THE WAY is what we expect of our presidents. How successful any individual president has actually BEEN is a matter of debate historically, as is the entire question of what constitutes great leadership in the first place. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Barry Petersen:
We laugh with them, we cry with them . . . and with Hollywood’s help from movies like “The American President,” we heap on them our greatest expectations.
As Michael J. Fox’s character said in that film, the public is “so thirsty for it they will crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there is no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
Presidential leadership is Colorado College professor Thomas Cronin’s specialty, and he is struck by America’s perhaps too-perfect wish list for a president.
“It seems like an amalgam of wanting Mother Teresa, Mandela, Rambo, the Terminator and Spider-Man all wrapped into one,” he said. “It’s a pretty outlandish job description.”
David McCullough has written extensively on our greatest presidents, among them, John Adams.
Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on his first night as president staying in what was then called the president’s house, and some lines from that letter were carved into the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room of the White House, at the wish of Franklin Roosevelt: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
“I love that because you noticed he puts honest first, ahead of wise,” said McCullough.
Why? “Because honesty is essential.”
To McCullough, the great presidents shared a common set of qualities. “They had courage, and they had integrity, and they had patience, and they had determination.”
Determination, like Teddy Roosevelt, who knew the Panama Canal would be good for American commerce and defense, helping American ships move from one ocean to the other — and he got Americans to follow his vision.
“Unprecedented for us to do anything like that beyond our own borders [at] tremendous cost and a tremendous risk,” said McCullough. “But He then participated in decisions, not just at the White House but by going to Panama to see things himself. First time a president left the country while in office.”
And the best lead not only with actions, but with words.
One speech, like FDR’s “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” or Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) could change history, said McCullough. “All superb speakers who delivered moving speeches. Speeches that lift us to want to attain higher achievement than we might believe we are capable of.”
Like JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
“That’s leadership,” McCullough said.
John Kennedy’s words launched David Gergen’s career working for four presidents.
“I do believe that President Obama has to be the unifier-in-chief,” he said.
He would add another trait that defines the best: Persuasion, like FDR’s “Fireside Chats” in World War II.
“He told everybody before the speech to go out and buy a map of the Pacific and while he was on the radio he said, ‘Get out your maps, I want to talk to you about where we are.’ That’s the role of a persuader, is to bring the country along with him.”
But for President Barack Obama, on the eve of this second term, time may be running out.
We re-elect a president for four more years, but in truth he only gets about a year to 18 months before his effectiveness begins to fade in the jockeying for a successor. So that’s all the time he has do those last, big things that will define a legacy.
For this president, his second term agenda means not just winning over the country, but also his opponents.
The first president who understood inside-the-beltway persuasion was Thomas Jefferson, who faced politics as polarized as any today.
“He believed, I think rightly, that it is harder to say ‘no’ to someone when you know them,” said Jpn Meacham, whose latest book is “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
And Jefferson’s art included a surprisingly simple strategy: Regular gatherings with friends and foes.
“The lesson for President Obama from Thomas Jefferson is to use the dinner table, to bring people around, come to the president’s house,” said Meacham.
You mean literally have dinner? “Yes, that’s what Jefferson did every night Congress was in session.
“I wouldn’t want to have dinner with members of Congress every night, but I didn’t run for the job. He did.”
David Gergen offers another suggestion about socializing for political gain.
“In the first nearly four years of his presidency, Barack Obama played, I think, 104 rounds of golf. He played with one Democrat the entire time, in that Congress, and one Republican, John Boehner. That was it. There were a hundred and two opportunities to play with other members of Congress, build up relationships.
At the start of his first term President Obama invited historians, including David McCullough, to the White House, looking for guidance from past presidents.
But Mr. Obama may be surprised at one addition to the list who McCullough now considers one of the greatest presidents: Gerald Ford.
“Gerald Ford was a very good president,” he said.
“Of all the presidents you could have mentioned, Ford wouldn’t have come to mind,” said Petersen.
“That’s because he seemed ordinary to people,” McCullough said. “I think Gerald Ford is one of the most interesting stories in the whole history of the presidency. He made one of the bravest decisions ever as president.”
From one of the worst moments in presidential history — Nixon’s resignation — came one that many now consider the finest:
“I, Gerald Ford, President of the United States, have granted full free and absolute pardon to Richard Nixon.”
It was, Meacham said, “an act of political courage that truly healed the country.”
David Gergen, an adviser to President Ford, says Ford knew it could cost him a second term.
“Ford was of a mind he hadn’t expected to be president and willing to give it up for things he thought were right,” Gergen said. “At end of the day a president has to do that. I think that’s what makes people trust you. There know there is something more important than power. That this is a sacred trust. I think in the rear view mirror of history, he looks better and better.”
There never seems a shortage of those who want to lead us. Few make it. Fewer still become this kind of great leader.
Few make it…fewer still become this kind of great leader, the kind who says, as McCullough suggests, “Follow me! Follow me! We will go climb that mountain!”
And the best of them are the ones who brought out the best in us.