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by Rebecca Koerselman
What makes a good president?
Good mutton chops? A full head of hair? The right height? The best looking? A particular religious affiliation? The right rich friends? Being in the right place and political party at the right time? The one who makes the least mistakes in their campaign? Having the best ideas? The best speeches?
Last spring, I was walking in New Orleans with a group of students from Northwestern on a spring service project. We were discussing various issues, and we began talking about politics. A student asked me who my favorite president was, and it gave me pause. In fact, I’m still thinking about how to answer that deceptively simple question.
Most people seem to think a president should be perfect—a strong leader who is decisive, has strong character, makes good decisions, and is wise and discerning. Is there such a thing as a perfect president?
As I attempted to answer this question, I struggled to weigh what I admired about past presidents with their mistakes. For example, I admire FDR and the way he understood that Americans wanted someone, namely the federal government, to do something to help Americans struggling during the Great Depression. Despite what one may hear in the current political atmosphere, the enacting of social security, the FDIC, and other critical programs are significant contributions that most Americans cannot imagine living without. On the other hand, I find some of his decisions unwise, and others morally repugnant. As much as I admire his vision for America in the 20th century and his desire to balance the federal budget and provide help for the needy, he also interned American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII against their will and without any just cause, other than their racial heritage. Notably, FDR did not intern American citizens of German or Italian descent during World War II.
I admire Abraham Lincoln and find his rhetoric and speeches brilliant and complex. I find his rise to power during a critical period in American history fascinating. While much has been written about Lincoln (even his vampire-slaying skills), I have continually puzzled over his ideas about race and slavery. Whether it was brilliant political maneuvering, waiting for the “right time,” or simply the evolution of his own ideas and opinions, I find his speeches, especially his rhetoric during the Lincoln-Douglas debates intriguing and somewhat different than his rhetoric and ideas as president. Does this mean Lincoln was inconsistent? A ‘flip-flopper’? Or someone who had ideas that changed over time?
I find George Washington a unique figure. With no official political party affiliation, both sides of the aisle are happy to claim (and even deify – see the Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda of the Capitol) Washington as our nation’s first president. I love the way that Washington played the middle so well. He oversaw the constitutional convention and managed to stay out the political bickering and discussions hammering out a new form of government after shelving the lackluster Articles of Confederation. Was that on purpose? Or was he indecisive by today’s standards? Or just very smart to stay above the fray? Washington married well and owned slaves, yet decided to free his slaves, but only upon his death. He seemed to struggle with the morality of slavery over the course of his life. He also managed to say very little about his faith, except in the most generic terms. “Providence” was one of his favorite terms. Was that because his spiritual life was lackluster? That he lacked the ability to accurately articulate his faith? Or again, just being politically savvy by saying enough to sound Christian, but avoid adhering to any one particular strand of Christianity and thus maintain his wide appeal?
We all know that no one is perfect, so why are we so disappointed, disillusioned, and sometimes even cynical when presidents do not live up to unrealistic expectations? I may not know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know one thing. Those who have been president look a lot worse for the wear by the time they finish their term in office!
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.