PBS Broadcast Transcript Part 1
May 29, 1996


JIM LEHRER: Is there a definable trait called Presidential character?


DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I think so. I think it's the courage of one's convictions when the chips are really down. And since the chips are down most of the time in the Presidency -- that when that quality comes to the fore and when we see it either at the time or in retrospect, we can't help but be very moved by it. And I think it's also contagious.

JIM LEHRER: Rick Hertzberg, what would you add or subtract from that?


HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Our monarchical system makes character a terribly important part, maybe more important than it is in -- in the other Western democratic systems. Our President reigns like a king and kingly qualities are important. Kingly qualities are necessary for the job.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: I have a little trouble with that. But I would like to pick up on what David said. And I think an important -- courage is certainly critical, but also trust. And that trust has to be based on he's a man of his word and his word is his bond.

ambrose And if the President builds that trust to the American people, so that when he says it, they believe it, even if they disagree with the policy that he's advocating, you can create a situation in which leadership can be exerted, that can take this country forward. I don't think it's possible to do that if the President, in the view of the people, is not a man that you can trust and you've caught him in too many lies.

JIM LEHRER: Tom Wicker, you're nodding your head.

TOM WICKER: Well, I agree with what's been said. But you asked in particular about Presidential character and it wickerseems to me that many times, or at least sometimes, we see people in the office of the Presidency who take on a Presidential character that may not be particularly like their private and personal character.

I don't think that always happens, but sometimes it does. And it seems to me that in my generation, my lifetime -- I've seen with President Truman and I think with President Ford qualities emerge as a President that one wouldn't have suspected from the member of Congress or the private citizen.

wicker JAMES CANNON: And I would say this is a combination of ethics and morality, self-discipline, willpower and acting in the best interest of the country, even if you know it's going to be politically damaging to yourself.

JIM LEHRER: Ben Bradlee?

BEN BRADLEE: Confidence. Confidence in himself, confidence in his cause. Those two, I think, are very important, belief in himself.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it helps also to take a look at it in terms of both public and private. The things that are really distinctively Presidential are those qualities that cause a President to make decisions that are well thought of both by people at the time and perhaps even more importantly by history.

wicker A lot of the things that Theodore Roosevelt did at the time were seen as very rash by many Americans. Much later, American historians and Americans look back upon these things -- they looked a lot more courageous. So, this made him a great leader.

And then the other half of it, because the Presidency is divided between this odd role of a political leader -- and also as Rick was saying -- kingly and sort of chief of state, monarchical -- this monarchical role -- it's also tremendously important that a President has personal qualities that Americans want to bring up their children to emulate. And if a President has those kind of qualities, it can make him a lot more politically powerful.

Eisenhower was a more powerful President, because people thought he had very good personal qualities, beginning with honesty. Ronald Reagan I think expanded his political power by dealing with the assassination attempt in 1981 with such a degree of grace that many Americans thought was very much worth emulating.

PEGGY NOONAN: I agree with what Michael says. I think when Reagan was shot and reacted that day and in the days afterwards with an remarkable elan and wit and coolness -- that that became a kind of noonanmetaphor for the regular daily kind of maybe in some ways dull constancy of Reagan as President. In one moment he did something very flashily courageous and brave that was a metaphor for something that he was doing every day. He was a very constant guy.

I think the biggest part of Presidential courage is a kind of constancy, doing what you said you would do, staying the course that you said you were going to stay on. It's not always the most dashing or interesting thing to see, but you can look back after four years or eight years and think, that guy was constant or he was not. And, to me, that the key to a great President.

ROBERT DALLEK: I think there's such a striking gap between the great Presidents we remember and the rest who seem so -- so faceless and nameless, the characters of the late 19th century. You ask students, they can't remember or name them, but Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and FDR and dallekTR and Wilson, Kennedy, Truman, they were great characters. They were great personalities. They were all larger than life. They impressed themselves on our historical memory.

And maybe there's a mythological quality to each of them and maybe that's a -- an essential requirement of it. But there is a special Presidential quality to all this and it has to do with vision and constancy and courage and also practical good sense, pragmatism, that every one of these great Presidents was also a great pragmatist I think.

back to the last page turn to the next page

| Welcome | Broadcast | Essays | Forum | Quotes | Links | Home