As the 2012 presidential election approaches, perhaps it is appropriate to ask what we should be looking for in a prospective president.
Aristotle provides some help here. In book five of The Politics he described the characteristics of those who would rule:
““Those who are going to rule in the authoritative offices ought to have three things: first, affection for the established regime; next, a very great capacity for the work involved in rule; third, virtue and justice …” Aristotle says a great deal more but this seems a good place to start in selecting a president.
According to Article II of the US Constitution before entering into the Execution of his Office, the President elect is required to take the following Oath or Affirmation:—”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It appears the Founders were in agreement with Aristotle. Such affection is requisite for fulfilling the duties sworn to in the Oath.
We have many examples of good and bad presidents to use in synthesizing the ideal candidate. We don’t need to debate who was the “best” president (or who was/is the worst). For our purposes it will suffice to look at the shared traits of a “good” president.
Obviously George Washington will top the bill for us at WWTFT, if only for his position as the first person to hold the office under the Constitution, and his rightful designation as the father of our country. We’ll even venture to say that Washington was a “great” president (if not arguably the best).
Washington did his best to embody the “virtue and justice” of which Aristotle spoke. Although you might not know it from looking at his image on the dollar bill, Washington was tall and powerfully built, handsome in appearance, and elegant in dress and comportment. While these were undoubtedly huge assets, what made Washington great was not his looks, his clothing or his wealth. It was his character that set him apart. Washington could have been made king after the successful culmination of the American Revolution. Instead he chose to resign his commission and return to private life, to which King George is alleged to have said, “He will be the greatest man in the world if he does that.” Recall, Washington served as commander in chief without pay and his private affairs were in shambles due to his extended absence. When it was clear that the Articles of Confederation were failing miserably, he allowed himself to be pulled back into public life and served as president of the Constitutional Convention. This was a risky decision and he knew it. Had they failed to achieve their goals, Washington’s reputation would have been damaged. He had little to gain and much to lose. But it was his presence that ensured the participation of the assembly of “demigods” as Jefferson put it. Without Washington, the Convention would have failed. As the country’s first president, Washington steered a precarious course. He had to keep the country out of war and avoid entanglement with powerful European powers intent on using the newly formed United States as a pawn in their fight for supremacy. Washington set numerous precedents, but perhaps none as significant as voluntarily relinquishing the office after two terms. These are the big, public demonstrations of the man’s character. However, looking a little deeper, one can see that it was not only public action that set Washington apart. His character was ingrained in private as well as public life.
During the Revolution, Washington was conspired against by “the Conway cabal.” The war wasn’t going well, and a group of military officers and some members of the Continental Congress sought to replace him by undermining his efforts and spreading unfounded rumors. Joseph Reed was a close confidant and friend to Washington who served 5 months on his staff. During the interval of the Conway cabal Washington opened a letter addressed to Reed, thinking that it was army business. Instead he discovered a personal letter revealing Reed’s behind-the-back scathing criticism of the Commander in Chief. Washington’s response was to apologize to Reed for mistakenly opening a personal letter “with no idea of its being a private letter, much less the tendency of the correspondence,” He gave not a word of reproach, in spite of having been deeply wounded. Reed roasted in embarrassment and after a considerable delay, offered a lame apology. Nor did Washington hold a grudge for he replied, “I felt myself hurt by a certain letter … I was hurt … because the same sentiments were not communicated immediately to myself.” He went on to secure Reed’s appointment to command one of the choicest brigades in the army.
Washington nearly always sought to do the right thing. Having received stock in the James River Canal Company in appreciation for his sacrifices during the Revolution, he donated it to what would become Washington and Lee University. He did so despite a life-long interest in building a canal to access western properties. The stock was given publicly and Washington did not want to offend by not accepting it, but neither did he wish to give the slightest indication of compromising himself. His solution was elegant and dignified. This public donation was an exception, rather than the rule. In his private correspondence with overseers, he directed that his charitable donations be given anonymously. It’s been said that character is who you are when no one is watching. Washington demonstrated his character through his public and private acts and bent his will and energies to the service of his country.
It is clear that Washington measures up favorably against the the other two precepts proposed by Aristotle, as well. He not only had a great affection for his “regime,” he put himself in harm’s way to give it life. His heroic deeds during the revolution and personal sacrifices should be common knowledge and require no amplification.
Washington demonstrated a tremendous capacity for the work involved in rule, visiting the entire country at time when travel was difficult, setting numerous precedents and working tirelessly on the fledgling nation’s behalf. Washington, more than any other president, defined the role of the executive.
In making a decision on whom to vote for in 2012, we need not look for someone as heroic as Washington, although it would be nice. We probably will not find a candidate who will dedicate himself to the degree Washington did either. However, it is essential that our prospective president love his (or her) country and be a person of good character. For if not, Aristotle also tells us that the consequences are a government that falls prey to sedition, incompetence and corruption. Sound familiar?