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Predicting Presidential effectiveness

How about an ex-one term congressman, a man of no prepossessing appearance, who’d lost his last two political campaigns. Not too impressive, is it…until you remember we’re talking about Abraham Lincoln, who led the country through its most severe threat to survival.

What about someone who never got a college education—who failed in business—who was an ally of a thoroughly corrupt political machine? Well, history has been pretty kind to Harry Truman, whose post-war leadership put Europe back on its feet, and who combined strength and judgment.

And was it really likely that an ex-actor, who launched his political career with a speech on behalf of one of the most unsuccessful candidates in history, would win two landslide victories and remain as the single most revered figure in his party? Even some liberal historians now give Ronald Reagan high marks for helping to end the cold war.

And it’s not as though we know what experience will best serve in the oval office. No one knew the congress better than Lyndon Johnson—he’d spent his life there. But Johnson saw the world through that prism—he could not comprehend, for instance, that North Vietnam’s leaders did not want a hydroelectric dam—they wanted a country, and would fight for it as long as it took to win.

Do you look for early clues? Franklin Roosevelt’s relatives were so dismissive of his seriousness that they said, “FDR stands for ‘feather duster Roosevelt’ “. But no one was better suited by temperament to lead America through the great depression and the Second World War.

Is psychology an insight? Well, consider—Johnson, Nixon, ford, Reagan, Clinton, Obama—all were men whose fathers were missing from their lives, or who had failed in their work. But these presidents were very different leaders.

Or consider John Kennedy—his private life was reckless enough to cast grave doubt on his judgment—but in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the fate of the world literally at stake, he was cautious, prudent…and that helped avoid disaster.

When I pressed David McCulloch, he did offer two traits critical to any president: first, a sense of humor. Second, a sense of tragedy. The first, to leaven the burden of the office—the second, to understand the limits of what any leader can do, to avoid the danger of overreach, of hubris. Not a bad set of guides to take into the voting booth on Tuesday.


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