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Job Specs for the Oval Office by Hedley Donovan

Hedley Donovan, editor in chief of Time Inc. for 15 years, met or studied all the presidents of his time, from FDR to Jimmy Carter, and he spent a year in the White House as Carter's senior adviser. In this 1982 Time article, Donovan proposes no less than 31 attributes that are needed for good and effective presidential leadership. He also looks at what a presidential candidate's resume does and doesn't predict.

Reprinted with permission of Time Inc. Copyright 1982 Time Inc. All Rights Reserved. See Time's coverage of the 2004 election at "Time Election 2004."

. . . So what are we looking for? Always, of course, enough of a good quality but not too much.With almost every presidential virtue, a little too much becomes a defect even a danger. The President must be "a good politician" but not "too political." The President should be decent but not "too nice." Etc. To start at the easy end of the check list:

* The Body.
We prefer Presidents to look like Presidents. F.D.R. did (supremely so), also Ike, J.F.K., Reagan. Other recent incumbents, through no fault of their own, didn't.

A President needs tremendous physical stamina (though George Reedy, one of L.B.J.'s press secretaries, has noted that "no President ever died of overwork"). The 36-primary campaign, whatever else may be said of it, is a rigorous physical exam. We, at least, know that anybody who can get nominated and elected is in good shape.

The President ought to be an athlete (Ford, J.F.K., Ike) or at least an outdoorsman (Reagan), not just because it appeals to voters but because it helps make a rounded man, capable of relaxing. Carter, after that ruinous jogging photo, took up trout fishing in a big way. L.B.J. poured all his volcanic energies into politics; his was the youngest natural death (at 64) of any postwar President. Nixon is an essentially sedentary man.Truman's sports were walking, poker and bourbon.

* Character and Temperament.
The presidential bedrock must be integrity, perceived and real. (Integrity includes an honorable private life.) There is an unavoidable tension between this necessity and the political necessities of maneuver, indirection and calculated ambiguity. Of the two masterly political operators among the modern Presidents, F.D.R. was frequently dancing along the ethical borderline, and L.B.J. was often well across it.

The President needs perseverance, and personal ambition within healty limits. A fashionable cynicism is that anybody so ambitious that he would put up with what it takes to get nominated and elected is morally disqualified for the presidency. Neustadt puts it more sensibly: Presidents need "drive but not driveness." L.B.J., Nixon and Carter were all driven. Henry Graff of Columbia notes that we like a presidential candidate to look "called," though it is hard to achieve this effect when you are trying to sell yourself on TV.

A President should be "fair" and look fair, magnanimous, willing to give trust, compassionate. No very high marks for any recent President. Reagan gives the impression of insensitivity to the poor. Liberal politicians for some reason can be highly compassionate about "the people" and insensitive to individuals.

The President needs presence, dignity, a certain touch of distance and even mystery; he is also expected to be "human." F.D.R. and Ike set a high standard. The aloofness of a De Gaulle would not sit well in the U.S. He needs courage, physical (just to go outdoors) and moral. He must be tough, even ruthless, but not find sick enjoyment in ruthlessness. He needs a deep self-confidence, stopping short of a grandiose sense of destiny.

He must be steady and stable, housing his exceptional combinations of gifts within a personality approximately "normal." Among the modern Presidents, the most nearly "normal" personalities are probably Truman, Ike, Ford, Reagan. "I am disgustingly sane," said Ford. It may be significant that Ford and Truman had not aspired to the presidency, and Ike began to think of it only in his late 50s, when he had already won world fame in a job about as big as President. Reagan had had two satisfying careers in the public eye, as actor and after-dinner free-enterprise speaker, before turning to politics.

* Brains.
Justice Holmes called Franklin Roosevelt "a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament." The President needs superior intelligence (at least a B from Holmes) but need not be brilliant, deep or blindingly original. He needn't be an intellectual, and we have not been threatened with one lately.

The President must be a simplifier. Reagan is rightly criticized when he over simplifies, which is often, but some of his simplifying is just right, not unlike good teaching or preaching.

In abstract intelligence it could be that L.B.J., Nixon and Carter would rate highest among the modern Presidents. All suffered from a lack of judgment and proportion, which does not show up in IQ tests.

A President needs a sense of history, including a feel for the situations where history does not apply. Jimmy Carter, despite his speed-reading studiousness and remarkable memory, was strangely deficient here. The present incumbent seems relatively innocent in the field. Truman and J.F.K. were well-steeped in history. From a sense of history (preferably not just American) flows an informed patriotism, a feel for the powers of an office unique in the world, the restraints upon it, and the tempo of a presidential term, including the special opportunities of the first twelve to 18 months and the special learning-curve problems of these same months.

A President must offer the country vision, and he must animate his Administration with purposes larger than the enjoyment of office. A visible zest for the job is perfectly legal, even desirable. But the love of the job can contribute to a certain burning of the national interest and the personal interest.F.D.R. doubtless convinced himself in 1940 that it was for the good of the nation and the world that he should be the first three-term President. It would be refreshing some time to hear a politician admit he wanted to be President simply because it is the top job in his business. (The motivation of J.F.K., Nixon, Carter.) But it is not an auspicious basis for a presidency. It suggests a lack of idealism and of a coherent political philosophy. Reagan and L.B.J., whatever their shortcomings, must be credited with a vision of using the presidency for the country. Walter Mondale puts it this way: "The candidate must know the mandate he wants from the people, and they must understand the mandate he is asking."

The President's political philosophy needs to be earned, hammered out in some detail, tested intellectually and in experience. It is good for the stability of the country that the American center, which is essentially where we want our Presidents to be, is so spacious. But there are drawbacks in this vast and vague consensus; presidential candidates and Presidents can evade the hard work of thinking out policy specifics and confronting the harsh choice between two good things.

As to the roots of a President's philosophy, a religious affiliation is necessary for a major-party candidate, but is religious conviction necessary in a President? Certified historians and political scientists shy from such an embarrassing "value judgment." But the voters know they would not want a nonbeliever President, and their instinct is correct.It has been settled that a Catholic can be President. The droll Bob Strauss goes about asking whether the country is grownup enough for "a Texas Jew."

The President must be a communicator. Reagan, by general agreement, is the best since F.D.R. Indeed, for a time in 1981, when he had Congress eating out of his hand, it seemed as though mastery of TV and one-on-one charm had become the very key to the presidency.Events and realities of 1982 suggest some limits on what a President can accomplish by communicating. TV is still a major resource for a President, more important in governing than in getting elected. Carter, Nixon and L.B.J. all won elections (two of them landslides) without being compelling TV personalities. Nixon was excellent on radio. L.B.J. was an overwhelming persuader close in, a gripper of elbows, clutcher of lapels. We have not had high presidential eloquence since Ted Sorensen was writing for J.F.K., though Ford (speechwriter: Robert Hartmann) came close at times, and Reagan, a heavy contributor to his own speeches, can be forceful and moving. The arts of presidential communicating should also include a sense of when to keep quiet. No recent outstanding examples.

For his own sanity, a President needs a sense of humor. Reagan and J.F.K. get high marks, Ford so-so. Carter and Nixon each had a lively wit, on the biting side, but never developed an attractive way of showing it, just the right amount, in public. L.B.J. had little public humor and in private leaned heavily on the set-piece joke ("There was this colored boy once up in front of this judge in Panola County . . .").

The President needs to be an optimist. Ford: "You just can't sit back and say this is wrong, it is terrible, that is wrong . . . and I can't do anything about it." But the President should not be so optimistic that he cannot face unpleasant facts, and spot them early. Reagan doesn't seem to have much of a built-in early-warning system, and neither did Carter.

A President must be capable of thinking in contingencies: What if? Some of the bigges contingencies (What if the Soviet Union did A or B?) get steady attention at the White House. But many scarcely less important possibilities don't.

A President needs an ever fresh curiosity about his big and complicated country. He can help overcome his isolation by seeking and taking advice from a broad circle. But many otherwise courageous people will simply not talk candidly to a President. He may be a very courteous listener, as Carter was, and still be incapable of any real exchange except with a very few intimates. Reagan is more open as a personality but not notably open to "new" facts.

We want the President to be flexible, pragmatic, capable of compromise -- also firm, decisive, principled. Carter was hurt by zigzags. Reagan advisers are said to worry about their man being "Carterized" if he compromises too readily. Conversely, many Republican Congressmen worry about his being "mulish." This is a tough one to win. The President should be able to admit error to himself, once in a while out loud.Theoretically, the public confessions could become too frequent, but that is not a real-life danger.

A crucial executive ability, above all for the Chief Executive of the U.S., is perceptiveness about people. This will bear heavily on the quality of the President's appointments and his ability to mold his people into an effective Administration. He must be shrewd enough to see when infighting is unavoidable, even useful, and when it is destructive. F.D.R., Truman, Ike, J.F.K. and for a time L.B.J. were good managers and motivators of people. Nixon's management methods brought us Watergate. Ford and Carter were weak as people managers. Reagan presided over some outlandish administrative arrangements last year, but the manchinery is now running better. An awareness of gaps in his own knowledge and concerns should enter the President's criteria for his staff appointments. Self-knowledge without self-doubt is admittedly a lot to ask.

The President must manage more than people. The fearfully complex systems and institutions in his care need executive oversight and control. It is not enough to say a President "can hire managers"; as he delegates, he must know how to keep track of the delegated work; he must understand what his managers are managing.

A President needs a clear sense of priorities. Reagan has the ability to concentrate his energies and the country's attention. Detractors might say this was because he has less energy to deploy. Carter had prodigious energy and diffused it too widely. Presidents should have the knack for keeping three or four balls in the air, but not the urge to toss up ten.

Well, we have proposed no fewer than 31 attributes of presidential leadership. There could be longer or shorter lists, but they would all have this in common: no one of the cited qualities is by itself rare, and indeed we all know people who possess a number of them. The problem is to find somebody with all these qualities, or all but a very few, who is willing and able to seek a major-party nomination. Better yet, to find a dozen such people, so each party can choose from among first-class candidates before presenting the electorate the final decision.

The Resume

Just to read the resumes of the modern Presidents, you would have had a hard time predicting their effectiveness in office. The only fairly safe guess would be that one term as Governor of Georgia is not ideal preparation. (This is a retroactive guess; in 1976, some 40 million voters, including the writer, didn't think the point mattered that much.)

Two of the modern Presidents were two-term Governors of our two most populous states: F.D.R. and Reagan. Many students of politics think the Governor's job in a big complicated state is the closest thing there is, though nothing is very close, to the presidency.

Truman has become a kind of democratic legend of the "common man" rising to lofty challenge.He came to the White House from out of the seamy politics of Kansas City and two terms as a "machine" Senator.

When Ike was elected some of his critics were genuinely concerned about a "military mind" in the White House. Admirers who understood Ike's extraordinary kind of command success, at least as much political and diplomatic as military, may have expected a presidential greatness he did not quite achieve.

One might have expected less, or more, than we got from Kennedy and Ford. J.F.K. had spent 14 years on Capitol Hill, though he was not particularly diligent or influential there. Ford called himself "a child of the House," where he had spent 25 years, always in the minority; he served eight months as our first appointed Vice President.

Probably the best resumes of all were Lyndon Johnson's (federal bureaucrat, Navy, Congressman, Senator, majority leader, three years as V.P.) and Nixon's (federal bureaucrat, Navy, Congressman, Senator, eight years as V.P.).

Eight of the nine were college graduates, and the list of their institutions evokes the American dream.Harvard, Yale Law and Michigan are there, and the senior service academies. But a fellow from Southwest Texas State Teachers can grow up to be President (and boast of the Ivy Leaguers working for him). So can a young man from Whittier, or from, perfect name, Eureka. Truman held no degree but had studied law at night school in Kansas City.

The academic performances are not very revealing. F.D.R. tended to the "gentlemen's C." Nixon was No. 3 out of 25 in his class at Duke University Law School, Carter was 60 out of 820 at Annapolis, Ike an unostentatious 61 out of 164 at West Point.

Only three of the nine earned law degrees (F.D.R. and Ford as well as Nixon), a lower proportion than in the membership of Congress (still about half lawyers). Apart from the lawyers, none of the nine held an advanced degree.

Lateral Entry It will be interesting to see whether a Ph.D. can be elected again (Woodrow Wilson is the only one so far) before a woman or a black. Possibly a black female professor of economics who had become a university president (we could really use some good ecomomics) in 1996. Meanwhile, the U.S. is conferring about 400,000 advanced degrees a year, lawyers and doctors, M.A.s., M.B.A.s, Ph.D.s, etc. These people are a formidable talent pool.

This brings us to the perennial question: Isn't there some way to get good people from "outside" politics into politics -- at the level where they might be considered for the presidency? The answer remains: probably not. Wendell Willkie in 1940 was the last major-party nominee from totally outside politics.

In 1975 TIME published an Essay, "New Places to Look for Presidents." Out of reports from the TIME news bureaus around the country, about 150 names made the working lists. Last month TIME again asked its news bureaus for lists of people outside politics who might be presidential. The exercise yielded a national total of only 21 names. Among them: two former astronauts, Frank Borman, president of Eastern Airlines, and Neil Armstrong, oil-equipment executive; Chairman Robert O. Anderson of Atlantic Richfield; Lee Iacocca of Chrysler; James Bere of Borg-Warner; Thomas Wyman of CBS; President Hanna Gray, University of Chicago; Marvin Goldberger, Caltech; Bartlett Giamatti of Yale; and, inevitably, Walter Cronkite.

TV is all over the place. The two former astronauts owe their high "name recognition" in good part to TV, and Borman helps keep his alive with TV commercials. Iacocca also gives himself heavy exposure as TV pitchman; it is an expressive face, an appealing tough-guy personality and, who knows, if he could pull Chrysler out of the hole, save American jobs . . . The president of CBS is an unknown face, but any heir apparent who can avoid being fired by Bill Paley has undeniable political talents.

"It's lists like this," says Jonathan Moore of Harvard, "that make you think the people inside politics aren't so bad after all." Nothing personal, he hastens to add, but the outside types tend to be "one-dimensional in experience."

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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