Rating the Presidents What Makes One President Better Than the Next? Five Traits, Says One Historian: 1. Vision 2. Pragmatism 3. Consensus Building 4. Charisma 5. Trust

By Miner, Lisa Friedman | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Rating the Presidents What Makes One President Better Than the Next? Five Traits, Says One Historian: 1. Vision 2. Pragmatism 3. Consensus Building 4. Charisma 5. Trust


Miner, Lisa Friedman, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer

We get but one chance every four years to pick a president. And as history has shown, we've made some good choices, and some bad.

But what sets an Abraham Lincoln apart from the pack? What dooms a James Buchanan or a Franklin Pierce to historical oblivion?

Author/historian Robert Dallek decided to find out. And the result is "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents."

The book (Hyperion, $22.95) is an analysis of five traits that Dallek believes have been constants in successful presidencies. Good presidents, the author concludes, have a mix of vision, pragmatism, consensus building, charisma and trust.

Using those qualities, Dallek then puts our 41 presidents to the test, examining how the best and worst fared in each category.

Dallek, a Lyndon Johnson biographer and admitted liberal, apparently does not allow political leanings to color his judgment of the men who've served as president. He's no fan of Democrat Jimmy Carter, for instance, citing his failure to sustain the confidence of the public and his foundering economic policy. And of Republican Ronald Reagan, he offers mixed reviews: "At his best, he was as successful a politician as any to hold the White House. At his worst, he was as unrealistic and obtuse a political leader as America has elected."

Dallek does have his favorites. He calls Abraham Lincoln our greatest president, pointing to his determination to hold the union together and his pragmatic timetable for abolishing slavery. Likewise, he gives high marks to George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt.

On a recent stop in Chicago, Dallek, a professor at Boston University, talked about past presidents, the '96 election and the office Thomas Jefferson once called a "splendid misery."

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Daily Herald: How has the presidency changed over the last 200-plus years?

Robert Dallek: It's changed enormously. The responsibilities of the folks who serve in this office have grown by leaps and bounds. The presidency of George Washington is like the horse and buggy compared to the jet plane.

The responsibilities these men shoulder - there seems to be nothing that is not within their province. If there's crime, if there's economic downturn, if interest rates go up or go down, any crisis in the most remote corner of the world in one way or another winds up in the president's lap. This is really a modern phenomenon. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams - these people didn't have to confront the daily crises that presidents confront now.

Your comments as well as quotes and statistics you use in the book almost beg the question: Why would any sane man or woman strive for the White House?

Dallek: I guess there is a kind of compelling ambition, a fire in the belly, an evangelism that drives them forward, maybe also a desire for the recognition, for the notoriety, an opportunity to go down in history as an extraordinary person.

All of our presidents thus far have been white, male, Christian. Is there going to be a time when we see a president who is not all three of those - a minority, maybe, or a woman?

Dallek: Absolutely. I'm predicting that sometime in the next 10, 12, 15, maybe almost 20, years we're going to see a woman as president in this country. And I think she's going to have the attributes I described in the book because she's going to have to be purer than Caesar's wife, as they say. She's going to have to be charismatic and have a quality of character that's above question. She's going to have to be a great consensus builder, a terrific pragmatic politician and a visionary. And she's going to have to have some luck as well.

I think this will happen and that we'll see an African-American as president at some point. Indeed it could have happened this year if Colin Powell had been willing to run for the office. …

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