All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1959

Apropos of the Presidency

Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.

The Foundation for Economic Education has recently been rec­ommending the disciplines of “con­centration, contemplation, medita­tion”—in short, I take it, the act of thinking; and, naturally, what FEE wants us to think about is economic topics or political topics or both.’

Well, what follows is the result, for better or for worse, of a bit of meditating I have done on a subject that will or should be oc­cupying the minds of American voters more and more between now and November 1960. That subject is the American Presidency.2 I pose and attempt to answer two questions: (1) What sort of man do we really want for President? and (2) How are we going to get him? Inevitably, the answer to the second question runs into and all but loses itself in the larger ques­tion: How, in general, are we go­ing to get competent leaders?

The first question is for me a delight. Who does not take pleas­ure in sketching an ideal? And in this case the process has its prac­tical justification, for when we have once made up our mind as to what we should like in a Presi­dent—though we can never hope to obtain it completely—we have a definite standard by which to judge any candidate we may be called upon to consider. What then is it we want?

One thing is an outstanding in­tellect. By this I mean an intellect addicted to hard fact, trained to sound logic in its operations, and impervious to the appeals of senti­mentalists, however pure their hearts. In political science, as in most other subjects, probably not one principle remains unchal­lenged, and amid the fiercely contending winds of doctrine it is necessary that our leader, if he is not to be the passive instrument of others, or else of his own tem­peramental impressions, must him­self be capable of deep, complex, and prolonged thought.

Wide Knowledge of History

Wide knowledge also I should make a requirement. This should include an enlightened acquaint­ance with literature and with phil­osophy (including religion)—two main sources of that profound in­sight into human nature which is essential to the highest statesman­ship. It should include familiarity with the major works in political science, ancient and modern, and with whatever has been proved valid in economics. It should in­clude a reasonable mastery of the recorded history of the world, East as well as West. Probably all conceivable types of government have been tried, most of them over and over, and all conceivable social theories given their chance. Not to have learned what there is to be learned about the practical work­ing of these types of government, and of these social theories, would seem a gratuitous and tragic lack in anyone who undertakes to head a great state, especially in a period of revolution and innovation such as that in which we live.

More specifically, it is clear that the President should be a close student of the period of American history in which our own govern­ment took shape, and of the in­formed reasoning which guided the Founding Fathers. Having ar­rived at a thorough comprehension of the permanently valid princi­ples underlying our original Con­stitution, he would be in a position to exert his great power and influ­ence intelligently, both toward pre­serving what still remains of them, and—perhaps even more impor­tant—toward restoring those which have been discarded.

It is a melancholy speculation, though an instructive one, to con­sider what ills our country might have been spared, if only all of our twentieth-century Presidents (to go back no farther) had been enlightened students of the Con­stitution, and at the same time (for without this the enlighten­ment would have been useless) had been scrupulously determined to support, to the full extent of their authority, its positive provisions and its implied restraints.

Politics Saturated with Thought

In all this it is hard to separate intellect from knowledge, since for practical purposes they are mutu­ally dependent. Intellect divorced from knowledge operates in a void; knowledge divorced from intellect is grist without a mill. It is when the two are combined, and only then, that effective thinking is pos­sible.

In the field of government there is perhaps no better example of intellect and knowledge working together than Edmund Burke. Mat­thew Arnold said of him that he saturated politics with thought. The phrase is provocative, and in­vites comment. What does it mean to saturate politics with thought? But, first, what does it not mean?

It does not mean basing politi­cal views on personal “hunches,” nor on what pressure groups de­mand, nor on public opinion polls, nor on ingenious calculations as to the best party strategy for success in the next election. It is at the antipodes of everything suggested by the nefarious “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.”

What it does mean is basing political views on an analysis of the immediate problem, with all its special characteristics, in the light of the facts of human nature, and—what comes to much the same thing—in the light of the past experience of mankind. A speech saturated with thought is a rea­soned speech, everywhere advanc­ing from premises clearly set forth, and adequately supported, to conclusions which are their natural consequence. It is the only kind of speech which any man dealing with a great issue, and de­serving the name of statesman, would wish to make.

Experience in Government

But intellect and knowledge are not everything, important though they are. Substantial experience in government is plainly desirable, both to provide specific training in statesmanship and to afford close views of political theory re­duced to practice. Though such ex­perience is the least indispensable of the qualifications I have chosen for emphasis, and though it be­comes less important in propor­tion as the others approach dis­tinction, it is something one much likes to see among the assets of any candidate for the Presidency. If the candidate is otherwise out­standing, it gives the finishing touch; if the candidate is other­wise only the prince of medioc­rities, it affords at least a mini­mum of assurance that his admin­istration, if unhappily he should be elected, will not fail completely. In the school of experience, as the familiar proverb suggests, even fools can learn.

Then, crowning governmental experience, there should be a rec­ord of distinguished accomplish­ment. I recall reading somewhere that when a man was brought to the attention of Napoleon, the Em­peror would ask, “Qu’est-ce qu’il a fait?”—”What has he done?”

 Prominence alone, whether in poli­tics or elsewhere, is totally insuf­ficient. We want proof, by pertin­ent and significant deed, that the man we make our President has the stature appropriate to the job. We demand nothing spectacular. Conspicuous leadership in a sound major policy or cause, in House or Senate, or in a state governorship, will do, or even a few public speeches—provided only that in these speeches there are displayed an independence, a courage, a learning, a power of thought, and a wisdom, that lift them far above the platitudes and prejudices of the hour.

And, lest we forget, there is character: honor, honesty, truth­fulness, straightforwardness, dig­nity, diligence, fidelity to the given word—but let us turn to ex­amples. We want a President who will keep the promises he made when appealing for our votes, or who, if he later believes that the good of the country requires a policy different from that which he is pledged to carry out, will openly acknowledge and explain his change of mind, and request a fresh vote of confidence from pub­lic opinion. We want a President who will cleave devoutly to his oath of office, among other things ref raining from engaging in ac­tivities, or exercising powers, not accorded him by the Constitution.

We want a President so animated by a spirit of fairness that he will never misrepresent an opponent, even slightly, whether by direct speech or by innuendo, for any purpose whatsoever. We want a President who writes his speeches (the important ones at least), so that the words he uses, as well as the ideas he expresses, are his own—a President who has heard that the style is the man, and wishing the people to know him as he really is, disdains masking him­self in the phrases, however clever or taking, of some alien person­ality. And we want a President with integrity so unassailable that no thought of personal gain, tangi­ble or intangible, direct or indirect, political or otherwise, can ever de­termine his decisions affecting the interests of the state.

Our prescription for the Presi­dency might be indefinitely ex­tended. Humor, amiability, charm, and many other qualities or graces it would be pleasant to add—but all are relatively secondary. Let us be reasonable, even in sketching our ideal!

How To Get Him

If now we have some notion of the President we want, we are ready for the second and much harder question: How are we go­ing to get him?

Conceivably, I grant, there will be no problem. Nature cannot yet be exhausted, and conceivably the man we are looking for is even now in the wings, just off stage. I can imagine him, powerful and sharply penetrative of mind, clear and eloquent of speech, profoundly convinced, as I think he would be, that we are already well advanced on a downward path—I can see him taking directly to all the peo­ple, in every state, in every com­munity, a message calculated to excite to action whatever remains in us of our passion for individual liberty, our feeling for unsophisti­cated social justice, and, in gen­eral, our political common sense. Just possibly such a man could arouse enough enthusiasm in enough voters to bring about his nomination and election, if not in 1960, then in 1964.

But obviously neither such a man, nor his success, is to be counted on. If he should appear, he would be rather an accident of his­tory than a predictable phenom­enon. For a recent report on edu­cation is doubtless right in de­claring:

With rare exceptions, it is probably true that a society only produces great men in those fields in which it under­stands greatness3—and what wise observer would say that in our time America under­stands greatness in the field of political science? If it did, how should we account for some of the men and some of the measures it has vigorously promoted or calmly accepted, and for certain aspects of the situation—dangerous or ridiculous or both—in which we now stand?

The Remnant that Saves

It would appear, then, that if we want to have leaders of high quality, Presidents among them, we, the American people, shall have to increase our understand­ing in politics and related fields. It is fortunately not necessary that all of us should become thus edu­cated, but only a sizable minority—the remnant that saves. But how are we to build up this sizable minority?

Begin, says Mr. Read in the document I quoted at the begin­ning of these remarks, by genu­inely enlightening ourselves, as in­dividuals—morally as well as so­cially, economically, and politi­cally. Thereafter, if I understand him correctly, he would have us trust mainly to the power of ex­ample. “The power of attraction—of attracting others follows all self-improvement,” he says, “as faithfully as does one’s shadow.” In thus asserting this power he undoubtedly has behind him tradi­tional wisdom. “Example,” says Burke, comprehensively, “is the school of mankind; it will learn at no other.”

I owe this last quotation to a book which by title and perform­ance is distinctly pertinent to our present topic—Democracy and Leadership by Irving Babbitt (Bos­ton: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924. 349 pp. $3.50). To the sub­ject of politics Babbitt brought great learning and great philo­sophical and spiritual insight. His general point of view is excellently indicated in the first sentences of his Introduction:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

In a word, economic and politi­cal issues tend ultimately to beethical issues; and obviously, ethi­cal issues are to be properly dis­posed of only in an ethical state. But can such a state be achieved? It would seem so:

Though one agree with Aris­totle as to the ethical unsound­ness of the majority, it does not follow that the ethical State is impossible. Human nature, and this is its most encouraging trait, is sensitive to a right example. It is hard, indeed, to set bounds to the persuasiveness of a right example, provided only it be right enough. The ethical State is possible in which an important minority is ethically energetic and is thus becoming at once just and exemplary.

Here, of course, the “important minority” is the saving remnant, a segment of the population which sets the national tone, supplies from itself competent leaders, and exercises a determining influence in government.

Babbitt was primarily a univer­sity teacher, and it was natural that he should concern himself with the problem of producing leaders in its relation to educa­tion. Of his central ideas on this subject the following may serve, I think, as a brief statement. He be­lieved that “the civilization of a community and ultimately the government of which it is capable is closely related to the type of education on which it has agreed,” and quotes with approval Aris­totle’s saying that “the best laws will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the con­stitution.”

Training for Wisdom and Character

Now our form of government is a federal and constitutional de­mocracy, with agencies such as a written Constitution, a Senate, and a Supreme Court to serve “as a check on the ordinary or im­pulsive will of the people.” The veto power theoretically exercised by such agencies found a real cor­relative in the type of training given by the older American col­lege. This “was based on the be­lief that men need to be disciplined to some ethical centre.” It “set up a standard that limited the sup­posed right of the individual to self-expression as well as the in­breeding of special aptitudes in the interests of efficiency,” and “thus acted restrictively on the mere temperament of the individual.” It was, “in intention at least, a train­ing for wisdom and character.” Our new education might have made the old more vital, broad­ened it, adapted it to changed con­ditions, and at the same time re­tained its ethical orientation. But this, in the main, it can scarcely be said to have done. “It suggests rather a radical break with our traditional ethos…. The new ed­ucation has been summed up by President Eliot in the phrase: training for service and power.”

These ideas were expressed thirty-five years ago. If Babbitt were alive today, would he think that our higher education had changed significantly in the direc­tion he would approve? Let those answer who are now in intimate contact with it. If my surmise is correct, he would not; and if that is the case it seems clear that among the first things he would have his “important minority” do, once it had acquired the necessary influence, would be to bring our education back to effective corres­pondence with the federal and con­stitutional democracy under which we long lived and which many of us still cherish.

How, then—to return to the second of the two questions with which we began—are we to get the President of our dreams, or at least, in Carlylean phrase, a “not intolerable approximation” to such a man? The answer: Accident aside, we shall get him only by becoming as a nation—or rather as a dominant part of it—politi­cally and ethically wise and sound.


‘See “Wake Up—It’s Tomorrow” by Leonard E. Read, Notes from FEE, January 1959.

²”The framers [of the Constitution] be­lieved—and wisely too—that the most important political duty of the Ameri­can people is the selection, once in four years, of a President of the United States.” James M. Beck, in The Consti­tution of the United States.

3 Rockefeller Report. The Pursuit of Ex­cellence, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958.

  • Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.