The Moral Leadership of American Presidents

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I find that again and again, no matter what the subject is, we return to the question of leadership. Moral leadership is in fact the central task of our presidents when it’s done correctly,” said Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written books about Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. He spoke at a luncheon in October kicking off a year-long series on Moral and Ethical Leadership in the American Presidency. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shared their perspectives on American presidents at events in January and March. The series, sponsored by the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership, concluded in May with Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White.

“When you realize that these presidents are people too, that they are not godlike, Zeus-like figures, but human beings who did great things, then you yourself as a flawed person could also, perhaps, do great things,” Meacham said. “One of the points of biography is not to look up worshipfully or look down condescendingly, but to look at people in the eye. And when you see them in the eye, you see them and judge them for what they were, and in that sense, the biography becomes illuminating and inspirational.” In their talks, the four authors informed and inspired their audiences with stories from the lives of presidents and reflections on their moral leadership.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke at the 2015 Westmont President’s Breakfast in March.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke at the 2015 Westmont President’s Breakfast in March.

Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson

Jefferson and Jackson both considered the nation an experiment that must succeed. “Their moral insight was that, as Jefferson put it, ‘The United States was the world’s best hope,’” Meacham said. “They devoted their lives to creating, preserving and protecting a nation-state in which the ideals of the Revolution could take their stand in the long history of the world.

“They were imperfect. They defended slavery. They were architects and executioners of Native American people. They thought rather too much of themselves. And from a philosophical point of view, they were hopelessly hypocritical. But they were not primarily, or in Jackson’s case even secondarily, philosophers. They were politicians. Public men dedicated to the public business with all its inherent limitations. And I would submit that we should thank God that they were.”

In 1832, when South Carolina passed the Doctrine of Nullification, declaring that a state could pick and choose which laws to follow, Jackson reacted viciously and violently. “Jackson did this because he saw his moral leadership, his moral obligation to preserve the inheritance that had been given to him,” Meacham said. “To honor the sacrifice of his own family and to stand in the line with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Adams and take his stand in the arena. He believed that we would argue, we would fight, we would disagree, but we had to do it under the same roof.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke at the2015 Westmont President’s Breakfast in March.

Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama

Best known for his investigative reporting that helped uncover t he Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward has written about presidents throughout his long career. “A president should always consider the next stage of good for the country and then execute it,” he said.

Woodward gave Richard Nixon “lower than an F” for his moral and ethical leadership, describing his criminality and abuse of power as “staggering.” He recalled the day Nixon resigned, when the president said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Woodward said, “Nixon practiced hating, and it destroyed him. It was the poison of the Nixon presidency.”

When President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, Woodward considered it the ultimate corruption of Watergate. For years, he hounded Ford about the decision, asking for his justification. The two men spent significant time together, and the former president eventually explained that he pardoned Nixon for the country, to put an end to Watergate and what would have been two or three more years of court proceedings. “I needed my own presidency,” Ford told Woodward. “The country needed a new president. We needed to dispose of Nixon and Watergate. And the only way to do that was the route of the pardon.” “In fact, pardoning Nixon was very much a gutsy thing to do,” Woodward said. “It was a necessary thing to do in the national interest. The next stage of good is getting rid of Richard Nixon.”

Commenting on the current state of stagnated politics, Woodward recalled 1978, when President Carter invited Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, and Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, to Camp David for two weeks, eventually leaving with a significant Middle East peace treaty.

Woodward credited Carter for focusing on one thing and seeing it to completion. “I’ve checked the daily schedule of all the presidents, and Obama is a little of this, a little of that, maybe a two-hour meeting, but there’s no focus,” Woodward said. “And one of the things that I have tried to learn is you have to focus.

“Negotiation takes time. Obama will meet wit h t h e Republicans for an hour or two. That doesn’t do it. You’ve got to have an all-nighter or an all-weekender. Then you get to a point where you solve the problem. You’re exhausted and say, ‘What do you want the most? This is what I want the most—one for you, one for me.’ You can’t be embarrassed about compromise. Compromise isn’t a dirty word. Reagan was proud of compromise, not embarrassed. Compromise is embedded in a constitutional system based on shared power, and we can’t pretend it isn’t that way.”

Woodward said that President Ronald Reagan’s next stage of good was removing the threat of nuclear annihilation and providing the intellectual basis for ending the Cold War.

He criticized Obama for not reaching out to politicians. “Both Republicans and Democrats think Obama doesn’t like them,” Woodward said. “Part of the job is to open the door to everyone and send a message: ‘I like you.’ Obama hasn’t solved the Human Relations 101 problem. You have to have relations with people. Obama doesn’t do it, and it hurts him.”

Woodward also addressed the ethics of contemporary reporters and questioned the fast pace of Internet journalism. He talked about the hours he spent researching stories like Watergate and the efforts he made to talk face-to-face with all the people involved. It takes time to thoroughly research and write a story, he noted, and fewer reporters spend that time. He quoted a former boss at the Washington Post who said, “You can’t understand a man in an afternoon.”

He predicted that the next president will be the person who embraces a galvanizing idea of functional government and demonstrates an ability to govern.

Historian Jon Meacham (top photo) and journalist Bob Woodward (above, with President Gayle D. Beebe) discussed moral and ethical leadership in the American presidency.

A president should always consider the next stage of good for the country and then execute it.

Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt

Doris Kearns Goodwin has written books about both Abraham Lincoln (Team of Rivals) and Theodore Roosevelt (The Bully Pulpit). At the President’s Breakfast, she identified 10 common traits that helped make both men great. For example:

They withstood adversity.

“They both shared what is one of the most critical leadership attributes: the ability to motivate themselves in the face of frustration, to withstand adversity and come through trials of fire.” Lincoln overcame his lack of schooling and his grief at the deaths of so many family members. Roosevelt conquered debilitating asthma and physical weakness and a series of losses in his life.

They appointed strong, possibly contentious advisers.

“They both had the confidence to surround themselves wit h people who could argue wit h t hem, provide diverse perspectives, and question their assumptions.” Lincoln said he needed the strongest, most able men in the country by his side in a time of great peril. Roosevelt put strong men in his cabinet and developed relationships with journalists. “The key to his remarkable relationship with these reporters was his unusual ability to absorb their criticisms, which allowed them to retain their integrity as journalists.”

They almost always controlled their emotions.

When he was angry, Lincoln wrote what he called a “hot” letter, but he rarely sent them. “It wasn’t that he didn’t feel the human emotions of jealousy or envy or anger, but he knew that if he allowed those resentments to fester, it would poison a part of you.”

They stayed close to their constituents.

“Lincoln went to an active battlefield right after a battle had taken place more than a dozen times during the Civil War.” He would meet with anyone, and his secretaries said, “Lincoln, you don’t have time for these ordinary people!” “He said, ‘You’re wrong. These are my public opinion baths. I must never forget the popular assemblage from which I have come.’” Roosevelt spent more time on the road than any previous president. He knew he had to get out of Washington to be among the people, talking with them, visiting with local newspaper editors, listening to complaints.”

Their legacies revealed a moral aspect to their leadership.

“They both left behind legacies that revealed a moral aspect to their leadership, their programs, legislation that advanced the cause of liberty, economic opportunity, and social justice. When Teddy Roosevelt left the presidency, he could take pride in knowing that through his Square Deal legislation and his repeated moral emphasis on right and wrong, he had softened some of the worst aspects of the industrial order, protecting women and children from exploitation, enforcing rules for workmen’s compensation, ending discriminator y railroad rebates, his antitrust activities had broken up monopolies that were not playing by the rules of the game, and of course he was the guiding spirit behind the conservation movement saving millions of miles of forest, national parks, bird reservations, and wildlife preserves as part of our common heritage. But no one’s legacy perhaps burns brighter than of Abraham Lincolns. He saved the Union, he won the war, and he ended slaver y forever. Tolstoy said of Lincoln, ‘His greatness consisted in the integrity of his character and the moral fiber of his being’— the ultimate standard for judging our leaders.”

Franklin Roosevelt

Goodwin acknowledged that FDR made mistakes: He failed to accept more Jewish refugees and incarcerated Japanese- Americans. “But in the end, he was the leader who said that the presidency was primarily a place for moral leadership. He was the president who guided us through our two greatest crises: depression and war. And he was the one who brought to fruition the goals that Teddy Roosevelt had outlined in his 1912 Bull Moose Campaign: Social Security, protections for labor, financial regulations, minimum wages, maximum hours. And of course, he was the one who led the allied cause, defining victory in World War II with a clear moral sense that the Western civilization values of liberty and freedom and opportunity would be destroyed if Hitler were ever to succeed.

Lyndon Johnson

Johnson, “a victor in a thousand contests,” was defeated by the war in Vietnam, Goodwin said. “I am so glad that at least now, wit h 50-year celebrations coming for his great civil rights legislation, the war on poverty, and the voting rights act, that his domestic accomplishments are finally receiving the due because he did the right thing, he did the moral thing, he did the ethical thing, by making those civil rights laws, by making Medicare, aid to education, war and poverty, he was trying to bring America closer to our ancient ideal.”

Lincoln’s Sermon on the Mount: The Second Inaugural

Distributing printed copies of the Second Inaugural, an address etched on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, Ronald C. White Jr. set the stage for the speech delivered just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. Drawing on letters and diaries, the bestselling historian began his May 29 talk by saying, “People were angry with the South. Everyone had lost someone, and many soldiers were missing limbs, a fact noted in the letters.”

Then he shifted to Lincoln’s surprising approach in the 701-word speech: “There is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.” What other inaugural address shows such restraint? The public knew the progress and likely outcome of the war, so Lincoln merely said, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

Instead, he revealed his purpose in the second paragraph: Lincoln wanted to bring the South back into the union and realized it couldn’t bear the entire burden of blame for the war. He began the process of healing. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” Considering the anger directed at the South, Lincoln’s criticism is mild. He acknowledges war as something beyond our control: It came.

The president’s rhetorical strategy incorporates inclusive language that imputes the best possible motive to the South, White said. “What would happen if we impute the best possible motives to our opponents?” he asked the luncheon attendees.

Lincoln identified slavery as the cause of the war. “Each side looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not t hat we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

One reporter covering the address described it as “Lincoln’s Sermon on the Mount.” Frederick Douglas, who was disappointed with Lincoln’s first inaugural, wrote, “This was not a state paper. This was a sermon.” White refutes the perception of Lincoln as a possible deist but not a Christian. “This address is all about Providence,” he said. “God loves us and acts in history; that’s not a deist god.” Lincoln quoted the Bible four times in the speech, made 14 references to God and invoked prayer three times. According to White, Lincoln’s faith strengthened during his years in the White House when he started attending New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White drew on the president’s own words to reveal his growth and accomplishments as a leader.

Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White drew on the president’s own words to reveal his growth and accomplishments as a leader.

The president’s inclusive language continued with his reference to the offense of “American slavery,” tacitly acknowledging the role of New England ships that profited from the slave trade; “. . . He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came . . .” Lincoln then prays “t hat t his mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

In the often-quoted concluding paragraph, Lincoln displayed both his humility and his remarkable moral leadership. “Is it Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White drew on the president’s own words to reveal his growth and accomplishments as a leader.

Tolstoy said of Lincoln, ‘His greatness consisted in the integrity of his character and the moral fiber of his being’—the ultimate standard for judging our leaders.

“Is it possible to ask a deeply divided nation to practice forgiveness?” White asked. If Lincoln had lived and extended forgiveness to the South, would American history have taken a dramatically different course?

“There is one word for Lincoln,” White said: “Magnanimity.” William Seward, the former political rival who became Lincoln’s great friend and supporter said, “He is the best of all of us.” Despite his untimely death, Lincoln left a legacy of incredible moral courage and leadership in the Second Inaugural. In timeless, inspiring words, he urged reconciliation. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up t he nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

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