Henry Adams once quipped that in America anyone could be president, and that some very shady characters were likely to be. The thought would have appalled the patriots who founded the republic. The oligarchy against which they revolted, dominated by the British landed aristocracy and the merchant princes of London, was, as governments go, not more venal than most, and may even have been a shade less crooked than that at Washington today, in thrall to the banks, the tech tycoons, the mandarins of the bureaucracy. Yet to the warriors who fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill, 18th-century Westminster was all but Neronian in its satanry. They were brave men, these colonial freedom fighters, but political innocents, cherishers of absurdly romantic notions of leadership. They read Addison’s Cato and Bolingbroke’s Idea of a Patriot King not as exercises in political fantasy but as how-to manuals. They expected their magistrates to be virtuous and would have been dismayed to learn that a man with so little ability to regulate his passions as Donald Trump would one day lead the republic.
It all went by the boards pretty quickly. By the time the Framers convened in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution of 1789, Americans had learned a thing or two about the realities of power and the inexorabilities of human nature. Madison and Hamilton took it for granted that man is a worm and that power does nothing to improve his intrinsic caddishness. The constitutional machinery they devised was designed to use that baseness, to convert it, as an internal-combustion engine does so many dead zooplankton, into motive power. They foresaw Donald Trump and were ready for him.
Even so, Americans are loath to give up the idea that the president is, or should be, a notch or two above the bare bar established in the Constitution (not younger than 35 and a natural-born citizen of the U.S. of A.). He, at least, ought to be really virtuous, as Washington was. The instinct is at once archaic and sound. We want to believe that there is some essential cosmic rightness in the authority by which we are governed. Our ancestors endowed their priest-kings and anointed princes with quasi-magical properties. We have replaced their mumbo-jumbo with arguments about the consent of the governed and the rights of man, but they are only skin-deep.
This is why, in spite of our knowledge that the president is a mortal like the rest of us, we make believe that he is something more, a guardian of the republic’s mysteries, a symbol of its continuity, the keeper of what Lincoln called its “republican robe.” The pope has his triple tiara and Swiss Guard, the queen her jeweled scepter, her yeomen in scarlet tunics, her Life Guards in steel cuirasses. The president, as befits our more utilitarian manners, has his flying palace, his helicopters, his praetorian phalanx of Secret Service agents. In life we set him apart, and in death as well: A riderless horse follows his coffin down Pennsylvania Avenue, and even so ostensibly unsentimental an outfit as the stock exchange braces for a sell-off.
The double-thinking by which we separate the infirmities of the individual from the majesty of the office allows us to preserve the presidency in its cultic purity, yet the whole business requires a certain suspension of disbelief. The virtue we seek or pretend to find in the first magistrate is at odds with the nature of the system under which he claws his way to power. The Constitution runs on the high-octane fuel of self-interest, transmuted in Madisonian cylinders into salutary governing authority: It is not an Aristotelian or Platonic machinery for reshaping the souls of its participants in the name of ultimate goods. Washington might have obtained the presidency purely on the basis of personal virtue. But all those who have come after him have had to dabble, to one degree or another, in the dark arts of political hackery.
An old Economist writer once said that under a constitutional monarchy the king’s subjects must take care not to shed daylight on magic. Yet we citizens of a republic are as complicit in an illusion. We know, by incontrovertible facts, that a president is, ex officio, a pol like any other. But we resist the knowledge, and preserve the dignity of the office only by averting our eyes from the realities by which the office is won and held. We look upon the president as one set apart, yet our confidence in his actual probity is amusingly low. We expect him, to be sure, to be above taking a bribe (except in the course of fundraising) or ordering a citizen killed (unless it be on national-security grounds). Nor will we countenance his using the powers of his office to harass his opponents, spy on his countrymen, or apply thumbscrews to enemies of the people (except where necessary for the greater good). We know by palpable proofs that the campaign by which he wins the White House is, very often, an exercise in charlatanry and cynicism, yet when, on the 20th of January, he puts his hand on the Bible, we manage not to wince. As for the president’s merely personal peccadilloes, these we readily excuse, at least when he is of our own party; and few of us are really shocked to learn that a good number of our chiefs have been less than strictly faithful to their marriage vows.
The trick works so well that it is tempting to suppose that presidential character doesn’t matter at all, that it is simply a premise for anodyne PBS documentaries and books with titles such as “A First-Class Temperament,” with a picture on the dustjacket of a windblown FDR or JFK grinning at the wheel of a sailboat. The Constitution has been described as a “machine that would go of itself,” and in theory it should keep chugging along even when the White House is held seriatim by scoundrels.
And yet we know that it isn’t so, that character does matter, even, perhaps especially, in presidents of the first rank, who have it in them to do much good or much evil to the republic. Putting to one side Washington, who “stood alone,” I take the first-rank presidents to be those who in some way stirred the nation even as they undertook to reform its laws and manners. Such a test must exclude some very competent magistrates, among them Truman, Eisenhower, Coolidge, and Cleveland, who lacked the poetic or histrionic gifts to dazzle the republic’s soul, and who were more in the way of skillful administrators than visionary reformers. The test rules out, too, an ambitious renovator such as LBJ, who had no gift for oratory, as well as such accomplished performers as Kennedy and Obama, who had inspirational power but were unable to translate it into broad support for their programs.
Which leaves Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson possibly, Reagan definitely. All got to the top of the greasy pole, yet in character they were very different men. What tarnishes the records of fully half of them is want of magnanimity, that greatness of soul that Aristotle made much of in the Nicomachean Ethics. Yet Aristotle’s account, illuminating as it is, is too idiosyncratic to be helpful to those of us seeking guidance today. His magnanimous man must have, among other things, a deep voice and a hereditary income — a test that would exclude Lincoln twice over: He was a tenor who made his own way in life.
My own idea is that magnanimity grows out of an inward tranquility in its possessor, a sense of self-worth serenely unlike the more frenetic, insistent varieties you find in vain or arrogant people. It is just because the vain or arrogant man secretly doubts his value that he is so relentless in insisting upon it. The magnanimous man, on the other hand, knows what is in him, and accepts it as naturally as he accepts the sun or the moon or any other obvious fact.
Such an individual, finding himself in the White House, has immense advantages over lesser figures. “Being president,” LBJ said, “is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” The magnanimous man is better equipped to take it; he is less apt to grow prickly and defensive, or to lash out at those who have challenged or made fun of him. He does not readily, instinctively convert an opponent into an enemy.
Jefferson, for all his gentlemanlike courtesy and professions of tolerance, could never quite believe in the good faith of those who criticized him. He could not accept at face value Hamilton’s demurrals concerning his theory of an agrarian economy — the man must have had ulterior motives. Hamilton might talk up the virtues of manufactures and modern credit machineries, but Jefferson was sure it was a diabolical cover for a plot to subvert the republic. As with Hamilton, so with Patrick Henry, John Adams, and John Marshall: Jefferson was continually converting mere adversaries into creatures of darkness, souls beyond the pale.
The same want of magnanimity is evident in Jackson. He never managed to see Nicholas Biddle for what he was, a pompous Philadelphia banker who made too much of a good thing, the second Bank of the United States. No, the man was a fiend, a shaggy beast of apocalypse. “Come not to me, sir!” Jackson told a Baltimore delegation seeking currency relief. “Go to the monster! . . . The government will not bow to the monster!” Jackson’s “tendency to personalize everything,” Richard Brookhiser has written, was poisonous.
Of the first-tier presidents, Woodrow Wilson might have been the least magnanimous. As president of Princeton, he managed to transform a difference of opinion about college eating clubs and dormitory arrangements into a Manichean struggle between light and darkness. Carrying this messianic self-righteousness into the White House, he could not look on those who disagreed with him as anything other than tools of Satan. His hatred of Henry Cabot Lodge, who resisted his vision of American participation in the League of Nations, became, at last, frankly morbid, in the physiological sense. Wilson was trying to rally public opinion against his nemesis when he was stricken with the first symptoms of apoplexy in Pueblo, Colo.
The same tetchiness that makes the unmagnanimous leader vilify his adversaries ends up isolating him; no one trusts a self-righteous messiah. He shuts himself away in a mental bunker of his own contrivance, hears only what he wants to hear, refuses to adjust flawed policies. Too small to work with his opponents, the unmagnanimous president is rarely big enough to admit that he has made a mistake. Hence Wilson’s refusal to compromise in the League fight, and Jefferson’s inability to abandon the Embargo, an experiment in commercial warfare that inflicted little damage on Britain even as it devastated the American economy.
The more magnanimous presidents avoid these traps. FDR pursued all kinds of questionable policies, but his presidency succeeded because there was magnanimity in the man. It is true that his brand of magnanimity is a little suspect in egalitarian eyes, for it derived in part from the circumstances of his birth and upbringing. The prince of Hyde Park was insulated from slights and setbacks that embitter less fortunate characters. (Though Jefferson, the scion of the Virginia squirearchy, was at least as privileged.) But whatever the ultimate source of Roosevelt’s self-assurance, it was sufficient to let him ride, during much of his public career, above the Sturm und Drang of petty political animosity. He was able to work constructively with those on the other side, with Republicans such as Stimson and Willkie and Tory imperialists such as Churchill; he overcame political attacks not with vitriol but with humor (the 1940 “Martin, Barton, and Fish” address, the 1944 Fala speech).
Roosevelt overreached at times, as when he tried to pack the Supreme Court, but he learned his lessons and never hesitated to drop ineffective policies. Toward the end of the Thirties he sensed that the New Deal had gone far enough, and, much to the consternation of Eleanor, he moved noticeably to the right as he prepared the country for war. As ambitious a reformer as Wilson, he had none of Wilson’s apocalyptic self-righteousness; it was hard for detractors to make charges of dictatorship stick to a man who, when he signed the amendment repealing Prohibition, joked that it was a “good time for a beer.” There were, it is true, limits to his magnanimity; it was closely allied to his breezy, lord-of-the-manor air of entitlement and was at times indistinguishable from simple vanity. He was convinced that his charm could win over anyone, that he was in fact, as Churchill once suggested, the human equivalent of a good champagne. The folly of this notion was exposed at Yalta.
Ronald Reagan admired FDR and learned a good deal from him about the virtues of magnanimity in the White House. His own high-souled qualities, being unallied to birth and privilege, were perhaps purer than Roosevelt’s, but in much the same way they lifted him above the poisonous hatreds of politics. The sniping of the opposition had little discernible effect on him; when it became especially noisy, he would make a joke. (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience . . .”) He rarely converted an opponent into an enemy. He got along with Tip O’Neill; he got along with Mikhail Gorbachev. It is said that he didn’t particularly care for George H. W. Bush, who attacked his economic proposals in the 1980 primaries. Stu Spencer has said that the “chemistry” between the two men was not good. But Reagan bore no grudges and, convinced that Bush was the best available candidate, he offered him a place on the ticket.
Reagan and Roosevelt were, as far as one can tell, contented individuals, optimists by nature. Lincoln, on the other hand, was prey to saucy doubts and fears. “In his worst moods,” Brookhiser writes in Founder’s Son, “he believed he was damned.” But if he was less serene than Reagan or Roosevelt, he knew his own worth, as Aristotle says the great-souled man necessarily does. “It is absurd to call him a modest man,” John Hay said of his boss. “No great man was ever modest.” It is magnanimity that distinguishes greatness from mere egotism and power, and Lincoln set the standard for the magnanimous conduct of the presidency: “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .” His unwillingness to demonize opponents did not, however, grow out of the moral relativist’s conviction that we are all of us beyond good and evil, that no one is, strictly speaking, bad. Slavery was evil: If it was not wrong, he said, nothing was wrong. And yet he said of slaveholders, “They are just what we would be in their situation.” This is the humility of magnanimity, the necessary antidote, Solzhenitsyn said, to self-righteous fantasies of virtue. Whenever he accused the heartlessness of the Soviet bureaucrats or the cruelty of the Gulag’s executioners, Solzhenitsyn forced himself to remember his own sins: “I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’” Lincoln would have understood.
Magnanimity matters in presidents; the presidency of a wholly unmagnanimous man, whatever its surface accomplishments, would almost certainly be a disaster, and destructive of the republic’s moral life. One can only hope that Donald Trump will wake up one morning and decide not to be that president. At the same time, there is a danger in making too much of the virtue of the more magnanimous presidents. One can be too preoccupied with the residents of the White House. Such a preoccupation becomes unhealthy when one seeks in the radiance of the great-souled chiefs a distraction from the emptiness of one’s own little-souled life. There is a tendency, in aficionados of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to set up the state as an ultimate ideal, one that can take the place of a God who has become for them (as he was for George Eliot in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity) inconceivable. The cult of the presidents has its ritual and social utility, but civil religion unallied to higher goods makes for numbness in the soul, and as a guide to life and discipline of the heart, Mount Rushmore is not much above The Twelve Caesars. There are better sources of light.