We just came through a big election year. I couldn’t manage, for the life of me, to get excited about it. There wasn’t a candidate on either party’s list of hopefuls that I felt real confident in. So I had a crazy notion. What if I could borrow an idea from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and build my ideal POTUS (President of the United States) from spare parts of those who came before. I like that idea. I am going to roll with it!
Where to start? I need a list of character traits that I’d like to see in my POTUS. Here is the list I came up with…
- Respected Leadership
- Wisdom/Measured response to crisis
- Resilience in the fire
That seems a pretty good list of characteristics for a POTUS. Now I need to carefully select the parts I will need from presidents of the past. As a historian, I will claim at least some qualifications for that task. This should be fun. I will just go down the list in the same order as above.
Respected Leadership–George Washington
This one seems a no-brainier for me. I am going all the way back to the beginning to take this character trait from the father of our country. What era of our country has a more impressive list of great leaders than our Revolutionary era? What a tremendous roster of great minds that were assembled to build our fledging nation…Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Hancock, and so many more. Yet, when we settled on a Constitution and developed a system of government that called for a President to lead, one man stood above the rest as the only choice to fill that role. George Washington was the unanimous choice among a field of qualified men the likes of which we’ll likely never see again. His leadership was the envy of some of the greatest leaders in history.
Wisdom/Measured Response to Crisis–Abraham Lincoln
This is a really important quality in a POTUS. Someone in that job that is too reactionary can lead us quickly into a very serious mess. It takes a wise, cool head to hold the hat of a POTUS. Perhaps the most famous hat in history sat atop the head of my choice for this part of my FrankenPotus, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln faced the biggest crisis in our nation’s history. Before he even took office, the South had already begun the process of secession. He was never given a chance to keep the nation together, but he was charged with the enormous task of bringing it back together. This job was so delicate and Lincoln knew it. He carefully measured his response to every crisis by weighing out how it would effect the chances of bringing the Union back to whole. The perfect example was the often misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation. This was, in my estimation, a stroke of genius. First, Lincoln waited for the perfect time before issuing the proclamation. He wanted to hold it until the tide of the war had turned to the North’s favor. He also was very measured and cautious in what the document actually said. People under the impression that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves are sorely mistaken. Read the document carefully and you will see that it only freed the slaves in states that were in rebellion against the Union. In other words it “freed” the slaves in the Confederacy; those states which were no longer under his jurisdiction. The proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states that had slavery but had not seceded. Although, technically, the Emancipaton Proclamation freed NO slaves, whatsoever, it did have a huge symbolic impact and unofficially changed the focus of the war. But it also kept the crucial border states loyal to the Union. A wise and brilliant political maneuver from a wise and brilliant politician.
T.J. is my favorite POTUS to study. He has been since I was a teen and I visited his home, Monticello, for the first time. I didn’t say he was my favorite POTUS, he isn’t. I just love to study him because he is so complex. Jefferson was a walking paradox. For all of his greatness, he was equally flawed. I could go on and on and write a whole blog piece about this topic (and I will, another time) but for now, I am focusing on one of his strengths. I believe Jefferson is on the short list of the most intelligent men to ever live in the White House, or in the United States for that matter. I marvel at the wide range of subjects in which he was so well versed. Perhaps President Kennedy summed it up best in 1962 when hosting a dinner at the White House honoring a group of Nobel Prize winners. In his address to that impressive group of geniuses, JFK said this, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.”
Who wants a wimpy POTUS? Not me. A little toughness can be a great character trait. I can’t think of anyone who comes close to the toughness of Jackson and T.R. First let me say, I think Jackson was a terrible president. He shows up on this list only for his trait of toughness. Jackson was so tough and stubborn that he once fought a duel wherein his opponent, Charles Dickenson, got off the first shot, striking Jackson squarely in the chest. Jackson did not even fall down! He proceeded to shoot Dickenson in the gut. Jackson was led off the dueling field by his seconds and rode off. Only after they were out of sight did Jackson admit that he was hurt. The bullet had broken his ribs and stopped very near his heart. He spent months recovering and carried the bullet in his chest for the rest of his life. Dickenson died in agony later that night, still believing he had missed Jackson completely!
Teddy Roosevelt was another notoriously tough son of a gun. He, too, was shot in the chest and refused to let it stop him. While preparing to give a campaign speech in 1912, a would be assassin shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet penetrated his speech notes and his glasses case before entering his chest. Even as the shooter was being wrestled to the ground and apprehended, TR took a quick inventory of his injury, saw that he was not coughing up blood, and insisted upon continuing into the auditorium and delivering his speech as scheduled! He opened his speech with these words: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” I’ll bet you could have heard a pin drop for the rest of that speech…oh, how I would have loved to have been there to see that!
Those, ladies and gentlemen, were two tough dudes!
I want my POTUS to be tough, but not at the expense of kindness and compassion. Jimmy Carter had a pretty hard time of it as president, but his post-presidency will go down in history as having been one of many great accomplishments. One trait of Carter that I think gets wide bi-partisan praise is that his heart is in the right place. I believe that even people who label him as a failed president still respect the man’s gentle spirit and kind and compassionate heart. I want my FrankenPotus to have at least a good dash of that.
Magnetism–John F. Kennedy
I want my FrankenPotus to look good on a red carpet! Let’s face it, the POTUS is a big star. It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of pizazz and sex appeal…after all, we want to win a second term too and we will need the female vote. Kennedy had some strong moments as president and some weak ones but, dadgummit, he looked good in a tux! It can’t hurt.
I need someone who can take a punch and come back swinging. FDR was wheelchair bound from the effects of polio and still managed to rise to the highest office of the land. That is resilient. Then he inherited the worst economic disaster in the history of this country and put the country back to work and got things rolling again. Some may argue that some of his programs have outlived their usefullness, but something had to be done at the time and Roosevelt attacked the problem head on. I admire that resilience and I want a healthy dose of it in my FrankenPotus.
I know that Obama is a very polarizing figure. So be it. I won’t even get into the politics here because my opinions are mixed and they are mine alone, but I don’t mind going on record as saying I truly admire the man’s spirit of optimism. Through it all, he still presents a positive message of hope. We have enough negativity in our lives without hearing it from our leaders. I want to make sure my FrankenPotus gets a fair measure of optimistic spirit.
America needs our leader to be a cheerleader. No President in my memory did a better job of selling the American Dream than Ronald Reagan. Again, leave the politics out of the equation here and I think folks on both ends of the spectrum would have to agree that, if you were making a patriotic commercial to sell America, you probably couldn’t do much better for a spokesperson than Reagan.
So there you have it. I have robbed a few parts from a bunch of presidents there. I will now start to work in my secret laboratory and see if I can put them together and bring my FrankenPotus to life. Hopefully you will hear me shouting, “HE’S ALIVE…HE’S ALIVE!!!” sometime before November.