Presidential Character: The Essential Quality

by Derrick G. Jeter



This much maligned and over used word, but a good one nonetheless, continues to express our deepest longings when it comes time to pick a president. And the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain is no different. As has been true of elections past, so it will be true of the 2008 presidential election—it will come down to the men themselves; not their running mates, their families, their advisors, and in many respects not even to their particular policy positions. It will boil down to what each individual voter thinks of each man’s character.


This is not to say that character is the only consideration we should take into account when selecting a president. Bill Bennett has well said, “People of good character can be bad presidents, and people of average character can be fine presidents.”1 Nevertheless, character serves as the root and grounding of other qualities which we should think about in a potential president.


A president should have a command of the language and posses the ability to communicate his vision, but he doesn’t have to be eloquent—clever and witty speechwriters are in the Washington air. A president should have an analytical and inquisitive mind, but he doesn’t have to be brilliant and know the intricacies of foreign policy or economics—policy wonks seep through the political pores like sweat on a steamy day. A president should have a mature political philosophy, but he doesn’t have to be a master political strategist—consultants and operatives are like fleas on a dog. And while each of these are important to weigh when voting for a president, each one can be purchased. What cannot, however, be bought, hired, borrowed, or rented is character. That a president must bring with him into the White House.


Wise counsel is critical when big decisions must be made, but if the president doesn’t have the courage and judgment to make the right decision what good is the counsel? Advisors may lay out important policy initiatives, but without the president’s vision, passion, and trustworthiness to persuade others to follow what good is the advice? Speechwriters may craft words which call an evil dictator or regime to account, but if the president doesn’t posses the moral authority and courage to utter the words what good are the words?


In a few short months the people of the United States will elect another president. One with a different vision for the country than the one President Bush pursued. Change is coming, if for no other reason than the men running. So now is the time to take a close look at these men—their policies, their political philosophies, their accomplishments, and particularly their character. For without character these other essential considerations are useless, or worse—destructive.


“There’s never been an office—an executive office,” Harry Truman said in 1954, “in all the history of the world with the responsibility and the power of the Presidency of the United States. That is the reason in this day and age that it must be run and respected as at no other time in the history of the world because it can mean the welfare of the world or its destruction.”2


Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who had plenty of time to understand what was most important in performing the arduous task of the presidency, during perilous times quipped, “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. . . . It is preeminently a place of moral leadership.”3 It is a place requiring deep reserves of character.


1. William J. Bennett, The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 37.


2. Harry S. Truman, “Powers of the President,” in The World’s Great Speeches, eds. Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, 3rd enlarged ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1973), 592.


3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, quoted by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919–1933, The Age of Roosevelt, Volume I (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 483.