NYT: Room for Debate: Do Good Debaters Make Good Presidents?

New York Times: Room for Debate

Necessary, but Not Sufficient

David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents, is a senior political analyst for CNN. He is a professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is on Twitter at @David_Gergen.

For centuries, a mastery of rhetoric was considered essential for political leaders in the Western world. Universities gave rhetoric a place of honor as one of the seven liberal arts and generations of students studied Aristotle.

So, it is no surprise that the majority of our most acclaimed presidents ascended to the White House and governed through words. Think of Lincoln and his debates with Steven Douglas, the stirring speeches of Teddy Roosevelt, the eloquence of Woodrow Wilson, the fireside chats of F.D.R., the debating prowess of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the soaring promise of the candidate Barack Obama.

As in all aspects of leadership, there are exceptions. Thomas Jefferson was a masterful writer but hated to speak publicly; during his eight presidential years, he gave only two speeches — his inaugurals. Harry Truman wasn’t much of an orator but he was an excellent president.

Still, the general rule holds: the better a candidate at speaking and debating, the more likely success. Nowhere is that more likely to be true than for a Republican challenger in 2012, especially if Rick Perry finds himself up against President Obama. Campaigning and speaking is what Obama does best. To beat him, his opponent will have to hold his own in fall debates. That’s why it’s fair to ask, from a strategic standpoint, which candidate would be best in the ring.

Even so, if elected, that candidate would have to contend with the fact that rhetorical skill is a classic case of necessary but not sufficient. Abraham Lincoln was a skilled debater — but then so was his rival, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln brought something more — an incredible amount of courage and grit, forged in a life of adversity, which enabled him to keep his eye on the ultimate goal when nearly all around him had been discouraged.

Those qualities are even more important to greatness in the White House — and they can’t be measured in a two-hour debate.




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