Foundations of the American Presidency: From Character to Charisma… and Cherry Trees to Big Macs


A paper delivered by Charmaine at UVA in 1997.

Foundations of the American Presidency: From Character to Charisma… and Cherry Trees to Big Macs,

“The pious ruler is by far the most likely to promote the public good.”

Phillips Payson,

Minister and Revolutionary soldier

Boston, 1778(1)

Introduction: The Question of Character

On the 50th anniversary of Meet The Press, moderator Tim Russert told his special guest, President Bill Clinton, about an NBC poll that had asked “What is the image you have of Bill Clinton?”

Forty-two of the respondents replied “playing the saxophone;” six percent replied “eating at McDonald’s.” The President laughed. “It’s funny,” he replied. “And I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s a single time since I’ve been president.”(2)

Presidency-watchers sprang into action and produced photographs of President Clinton leaving McDonald’s, Big Mac in bag, on several occasions.

The following week, Russert brought up the discrepancy. Russert, obviously amused, commented that the President’s spokesperson had explained that President Clinton meant he hadn’t eaten AT a McDonald’s in the last six years.

Russert’s colleague, Lisa Myers queried, laughing, “Does this mean that when I get fires at the drive-thru, they don’t count?” Russert turned to his guest, radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh and asked his opinion.

Limbaugh replied that he wondered how we could believe the President when he talks about Iraq if we can’t believe what he says about Big Macs. The two venerable members of the Fourth Estate, Russert and Myers, just kept laughing.(3)

This incident illustrates Clinton’s tendency to take liberties with the truth. No one, with the possible exception of Ray Kroc’s heirs, really cares whether or not the President eats at McDonald’s.

The episode, therefore, is significant only insofar as it gives us any insight into the President himself, his character.

It provides an occasion to ask: Does honesty in the chief executive, as an element of his character, matter?

Russert and Myers answered by laughing.


Continue reading at the jump.


The youthful George Washington, so the story goes, once cut down a cherry tree. His father, upon discovering the deed became incensed and asked George who had done it. George hesitated, but the replied, “I cannot tell a lie,” and confessed to his crime.

This oft-told children’s story about the first president of the United States is not true. Ironically, that makes it all the more interesting. First, it tells us that honesty in the chief executive was so valued by eighteenth-century Americans that a fable illustrating Washington’s integrity became apart of American lore. But second, it also tells us that Washington’s character was such that the story was at least somewhat believable to his contemporaries. No one was laughing.


The presidency of the United States is fascinating in its bipolar nature: it is at once an institution and an individual. It is the one branch of out government that is profoundly shaped by the single person who occupies the Oval Office. While the other branches are certainly marked and even moved by large personalities like a Sam Rayburn or an Earl Warren, the Presidency does not have the immediacy of corporate accountability that is intrinsic to the Congress and the Supreme Court. For that reason, the person who assumes the presidency comes under intense scrutiny.

The questions we ask about that person is the subject of this paper: Is character an essential foundation of the American Presidency?

Part One: The Founders’ Presidency–Character and Virtue

…many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President;

and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given a President, by their opinions of his Virtue.

Pierce Butler

Delegate, Constitutional Convention(4)

For the Founders, a leader without integrity would not be a surprise, but neither would it be a source of humor to them. Ensuring to the extent possible that the office of the Presidency would be filled with men of character was an issue of great concern to them. What the Founders believed about character in the chief executive can be inferred in three ways: from how they set up the selection process for the Presidency; from the general attitudes about character of their day; and lastly, from the character of the man they chose to be the first President, George Washington.

Some have noted that the Founders did not comment expressly on the character of the executive. While this may be strictly true, to conclude that they said nothing seems a little strange given the clarity of what they did say. Writing is The Federalist Papers; John Jay defends the decision to give the power of making treaties to the president, by explaining that care has been given to ensuring that President will be a man who can be trusted with this power:

As the select assemblies for choosing the President . . . will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume that their attention and their votes will be directed to those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence. The Constitution manifests very particular attention to this object . . . it confines the electors to men of whom the people have had time to form a judgment, and with respect to whom they will not be liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle. . . The inference which naturally results from these considerations is this, that the President and senators so chosen will always be of the number of those . . . whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.(5)

While the Founders may not have written out a list of character traits they expected in a chief executive, Jay’s passage clearly shows that finding a man “distinguished by virtue,” a man of character, to lead was uppermost in their minds as they constructed the selection process. They clearly didn’t expect perfection; quite the contrary, they structured checks between our institutions to control for overweening ambition once a man was in office. And they constructed the selection process just as carefully to control for character before a man assumed office.

This concern over the President’s character can be inferred from the discussion during the debates at the Constitutional Convention. For example, the Founders’ debate over property qualifications revolved around whether or not wealth provided a protection against corruption. (6) Benjamin Franklin’s opinion on that point was that: “Some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with, were the richest rogues.”(7) They did not want a rogue serving as President; they wanted the opposite: a man of character.

Jay’s comments about the executive in Federalist 64 point toward the second element of the Founders’ understanding of character: men qualified for the presidency would be “distinguished by their abilities and virtue.” Character, understood as virtue, was a given in their time. Being a man of honor and integrity was the essence of being a gentleman. The seriousness with which these men regarded the “gentlemen” ideal is nearly unfathomable to twentieth century observers, but incidents such as Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel is tragic evidence of how highly men of that day valued their honor and integrity as gentlemen.

That era’s value-system led these men to study classical Greek philosophers who venerated character and to strive to emulate the ancient Romans. Gordan Wood has called this the “Americans’ cult of antiquity” (8) One of George Washingtons biographers, Richard Brookhiser, points out that Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which has as a central theme the importance of character and virtue in public life, has a well read tone at the time. (9) Plutarch valued virtue above everything and wrote his biographies to illustrate how an individual’s character shapes history, for good or ill. In telling the story of Aristides, “The Just,” he writes:

And yet the divine nature, with which these men strived to be associated and resemble, is believed to be distinguished by three superior attributes, immortality, power, and virtue, and all of the nobles and the most truly divine is virtue. . . men long for immortality, to which no flesh can attain, and for power, which remains for the most part in the hands of fortune, while they give virtue, the only divine excellence of which we are capable, the last place in their scheme of values. (10)

The Founders read this philosophy of life and internalized it as their own. They would have seen no reason to explicitly state that a noble, good, and effective leader would be a man of character and virtue. That was for them a shared, foundational, value. It is not surprising, then, that Pelatiah Webster, a Federalist and Constitutional apologist would write, reprising Plutarch, that: “The grand secret for forming a good government, is, to put good men into the administration: for wild, vicious, or idle men, will ever make a bad government, let is principals be ever so good.” (11)

Lastly, the first Electoral College made a resounding statement about how highly they valued character when they moved to unanimously nominate General George Washington as the first President of the United States. This was an astonishing historical event, given the controversy surrounding nearly every other element of the construction of the Republic. As leader of the victorious Revolution, the beloved hero, Washington was an obvious choice. But that does not tell the whole story: Americans trusted Washington because they knew him to be a man of proven integrity.

Historian and Washington biographer, Forrest MacDonald says: “Americans of the Revolutionary generation, given their fear and distrust of executive authority, would not have been willing to make the presidency part of the Constitution at all had not Washington been available to fill the office.” Why Washington? He inspired trust because he was “a man with a thoroughly justified reputation for integrity, dignity, candor, and republican virtue . . .” (12) Another biographer, Richard Norton Smith comments that “One struggle Washington seems never to have fought was the ancient one between ambition and integrity.” Smith quotes an aide of Washington who said that the general was “the honestest man that I believe ever adorned human nature.” (13)

Even though he certainly had political critics, Washington’s character was so universally revered, that his relationships with most people were quite formal. His niece, Nelly Custis, wrote that:

. . .his presence generally chilled my young companions, and his own near relatives feared to speak or laugh before him. This was occasioned by the awe and respect he inspired and not from his severity. When he entered a room where we were all mirth and in high conversation, all were instantly mute. (14)

Part Two: The Modern Presidency – Charisma and Personality

The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant

was alone evidence to upset Darwin.

Henry Adams, 1929

The Education of Henry Adams

Two hundred years later, awe-struck silence has become bemused, derisive laughter. The idea of presidential integrity, once regarded as a foundational necessity, is now dismissed with cynical skepticism. There are many reasons for this development, some having absolutely nothing to do with the presidency or politics. (15) However, one of the reasons is a diminution of expectations of presidential aspirants. The electorate no longer demands that they be men of character. Instead they look for and are moved by men of charisma.

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield ties the rise of the charismatic politician to our changed expectations of government–unlike the founders who harbored no such illusions, we now expect that our government to be compassionate and caring. “It is as if,” says Mansfield, “all government can and should behave to the people in the manner of a passerby who sees an accident an the street and rushed to see if he can be of any assistance.” (16) To be effective and have the ability to communicate caring in this political environment, an aspiring leader must have charisma. P{resident Clinton, with his moist eyed rendition of “I feel your pain,” is the epitome of a charismatic leader. Charisma is compassion on MTV. Mansfield explains that: “Charisma is a inexplicable, unpredictable gift for knowing what the people want or think right before they know, and it attaches to the person, not the office.” (17)

The concept of charisma and charismatic leadership was developed extensively by the sociologist Max Weber. He defined charismatic authority as “rule to which the governed submit because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person.” (18) The central difference between an understanding of leadership based on character to an acceptance of charisma is the shift in definitional understanding of what character is. Once used to refer to virtue, or the lack thereof, character is now often reduced to mere personality.

The current example of this shift is the much-discussed work of political scientist, James David Barber, The Presidential Character. Barber reframes the issue of character and begins the book by saying “who ought to be picked for the presidency is a concern we ought to think about not in the context of moral perfection but in the context of basic political leadership.” (19) Character, then, in this configuration is more utilitarian – it is useful as a value-neutral way of telling us what works. As Barber works this out, he defines character as the way a man “orients himself toward life.” (20) Character is a matter of action and approach. “The most important thing to know about a president.” He says, is “how active he is” and “whether or not he gives the impression he enjoys his political life.” (21)

It is striking to shift back and forth between the eighteenth-century and modern language describing character issues. Where Pelatiah Webster decries “wild and vicious” men and Benjamin Franklin scorns “rogues”, James Barber sees a psychologically sanitized “negative” man. Indeed Barber fears that calling for a “moral cleansing” of the Presidency will result in “passive-negative” presidents, his category of least effective leaders – an attitude diametrically opposed to Plutarch’s vision of the just leader who aspires to “divine excellence.” To the contrary, Barber believes that calls to “bring back the old-time way of our forefathers: will have the effect of “unbuckling the President from politics,” (22) Where John Jay called for candidates “whose reputation for integrity merits confidence,” Barber says we need:

Presidents who know how the world works and how Washington works in it, Presidents who have mastered the skills it takes to make the White House an efficient machine for social progress, presidents who can call up from their own characters the steady, hopeful, insistent reasoning to shape a good life from a mixed society. (23)

This rigidly functional view of the prerequisites of presidential character is reflected in Richard Rose’s description of what he calls the Postmodern Presidency. He concedes that “character is important” but then immediately reveals his twentieth-century understanding of character by clarifying that “the choice of President should not be reduced to a personality contest. . .”In the en, he backs off entirely and concludes in a Barber-style utilitarian understanding of character that: “The fundamental issue is not the personality of the President, but how he performs in office.” (24)

These two shifts go hand-in-glove and reinforce one another: from character to charisma, from virtue to personality. The more we look at how charismatic a politician is, the more we are left analyzing his personality. If Barber is correct and our most important political criterion for scrutinizing a man is whether or not he gives the impression he enjoys his political life, then we are, of necessity, left with a focus on charisma. In this modern schema, where charisma and personality are accepted as an alternative foundation for leadership, we are looking for a system that provides effectiveness (like Barber’s two-step checklist that leads to a personality “type”) in a hope to avoid passing judgment.

Conclusion: Reconstructing the Presidency

This shift in foundation for the presidency is not a discrete development; rather it is part of the larger pattern toward an alternative foundation for our government itself. Character, understood as virtue, has been removed from the P presidency just as natural law, and thereby natural rights, has been removed as a fundamental basis for the Constitution. Virtue and natural law provide a basis for boundaries – for the individual and for state – that post -modernist, anti-foundationalists find too restrictive and rigid. Without using virtue as a standard for character the presidency is an institution without a foundation. Charisma is not solid ground, it is shifting sand. Weber himself in discussing charisma said that: “By its very nature, the existence of charismatic authority is specifically unstable.” (25) According to Weber, the power of the charismatic leader derives from the faithful devotion of his followers, and that devotion is “born of distress and enthusiasm.” (26)

One has only to view a small sampling of modern political advertising to see today’s prospective leaders working to generate this devotion. And therein lies part of the problem. Jeffrey Tulis, in his discussion of the rhetorical presidency, points out that excessive use of charismatic power is more than merely inherently unstable itself; it also promotes instability in the body politic. “The routinization of crisis, endemic to the rhetorical presidency,” Tulis writes, “is accompanied by attempted repetitions of charisma.” (27) The leader who is elected through generating false distress and enthusiasm in his followers is forced to continue generating support through crisis politics and laundry lists of promises.

Support so generated attaches to the charismatic leader personally rather than institutionally. Tulis says this is another problem the charismatic presidency presents. “Under charismatic rule, order inheres in the leader, not in the routines of governance.” (28) At its worst, charisma strongly resembles the “lowly arts” of leadership decried by Publius. Indeed, Jay could have been defining charisma when he wrote of “brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” Mansfield brings this concern into the present. In his analysis of charisma he writes that in the modern political climate, “unromantic sober prudence is not appreciated . . . our praise for charisma is a sign that we no longer consider popularity to be an evil, or the evil, of popular government.” (29)

This is not to say that there is no place in public life for charisma. In fact, charisma, within boundaries, can be an essential element of effective leadership. Not all crises, of course, are manufactured. And in times of true crises, charisma is a tool in the hands of an inspired leader – Winston Churchill rallying the British in World War II; Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats; Ronald Reagan berating the Communists to tear down the Wall. And George Washington, our example of leadership based on virtuous character, may have inspired respect and devotion, but he also had an element of charismatic leadership that he used to energize and motivate his troops, and then the nascent nation. Richard Norton Smith, Washington’s biographer says that:

Washington was rarely bashful about manipulating the emotions of an audience where the good of his country was concerned. . . .[he] was adept at putting himself in the settings designed to exploit his unique standing, displaying a personal magnetism that projected to the second balcony. (30)

Leadership involves making a connection with the people. A virtuous, yet bloodless man will not be a leader of men. “Even rulers who are intelligent, prudent or visionary must make a sensual impact if they are to lead,” points out Richard Brookhiser in discussing Washington’s commanding physical presence. “If their bodies cannot command attention, they must compel it by secondary physical means, such as eloquence, or by props – masks, regalia, Air Force One.” (31)

The Heroic Presidency: Washington aflame

Then down the hill from Tom Clark’s house

Rode Washington aflame

With holy ire; through smoke and fire, like mighty Mars he came. . .

Ballad of Princeton Battle

Henry Van Dyke, 1777(32)

If it is to be a solid, sure servant of the republic into the next century, the institution of the American presidency needs regrinding, a shoring up of its foundation. We need to recover the Founder’s appreciation for the centrality of virtue in leadership because a integrity of character is the only steady foundation for noble achievement. After examining Washington’s life, Brookhiser correctly concludes that: “We have lost the conviction that ideas require men to bring them to earth, and that great statesmen must be great men.” (33) Regaining that conviction is necessary in building a conception of presidential leadership that appropriately integrates character and charisma. Neither is dispensable.

This work may have already begun. Certainly a belief in the fundamental importance of character is not without its champions. William Bennet, now editor of three books about virtue, focuses on the centrality of virtue to the political, and personal, philosophy of the Founders in his most recent compilation, Or Sacred Honor. He includes in his collection of the Founders’ writings, a speech James Madison gave to the Virginia Ratifying Convention. “But I go on this great republican principle,” Madison argued, “that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom,” (34) If the best-seller lists are any indication, Bennett’s resurrection of these arguments is resonating and finding an audience among today’s charisma-saturated electorate.

He is not alone; two other notable authors are drawing attention for their books detailing the negative side of character and the effect that has on the presidency. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh, as written a highly controversial book about the Kennedy presidency entitled, The Dark Side of Camelot. His allegations about president John Kennedy are stunning, but regardless of their veracity, more relevant to this discussion is his willingness to pass judgment on the shining star of Camelot. Forsaking the value-neutrality of the personality-as-character trend, Hersh concludes that:

Kennedy’s private life and personal obsessions — his character — affected the affairs of the nation and its foreign policy far more than has ever been known. This is a book about a man whose personal weaknesses limited his ability to carry out his duties as president. It is also a book about the power of beauty. It tells of otherwise strong and self reliant men and women who were awed and seduced by Kennedy’s magnetism, and who competed with one another to please the most charismatic leader in our nation’s history. (35)

This kind of analysis goes against the accepted wisdom that Kennedy’s private moral lapses, and other presidents as well, have no relevance in the public debate.

Ironically, at the same time, presidential historian, Michael Beschloss has published his annotated transcription of recently-released tapes from the Lyndon Johnson White House. That Johnson was an accomplished liar and manipulator is a well-documented fact of history. Nevertheless, the extent to which Johnson tortured the truth, as the book reveals, has brought the character issue to the fore. Even seasoned Washington veterans, who knew Johnson personally, like the reporter and columnist Robert Novak, expressed surprise. “The duplicity that appears in the cold print of this new volume can still be a little startling,” he comments after noting his personal familiarity with Johnson’s “disregard for the truth in things both large and small.” Novak concludes that the book will be “a valuable corrective to the widely held notion that the hands-on, masterful politician provides the correct model for the presidency.” (36)

Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, in quick succession, each in his own way epitomized the charismatic leader. They also provide cautionary examples of unrestrained charisma not grounded in character. The man who succeed them, however, provides an example of why trends that are dependent on individual performance are difficult to establish: Gerald Ford was a man of integrity. His bio, James Cannon, writes that Ford was “the right man in the right place at the right time,” because his character was so strong and he could be trusted. Cannon notes that America has been extraordinarily lucky in having had several such men at critical junctures in our nation’s history. (37)

We should not depend on luck. WE are fortunate that the founders, in their realism, put institutions in place to check scoundrels. (38) Disaster has never yet overwhelmed us. But there will always be times of crisis and moments of opportunity. It is then that the nation is best served by men and women of character.


1: Hyneman Lutz, American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805, Volume 1, (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983), p. 532.

2: NBC News Transcripts, Meet the Press, November 9, 1997.

3: NBC News Transcripts, Meet the Press, November 16, 1997.

4: Richard M. Pious, The American Presidency (New York: Basic Books, 1979). P.26

5: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, with Clinton Rossiter, ed. The Federalist Papers, (New York: Mentor, 1961), p. 391.

6:Michael Nelson, “Qualifications for President,” Inventing the Presidency, Thomas E. Cronin, ed., (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1989), p.16

7: Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1911),

8 Wood, p. 50

9 Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washignton (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p.13. Brookhiser discusses at length the influence the Roman ideal had on the Founders, particularly Washington, who frequently quoted from Cato, a 1713 drama by Joseph Addison about the Romans. Washington had the play performed at Valley Forge, pp. 122-127

10 Plutarch, Ian Scott-Kilvert, trans, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (New York: Penguin, 1960), p.116.

11 Pelatiah Webster, The Weakness of Brutus Exposed… (Philadelphia, 1787) in Paul L. Ford, ed., Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States (Brooklyn, 1888), p. 131; as cited in Wood, p, 508.

13 Smith, p. 16.

14 Smith, p. 25

15 For example, we live in a more informal age. Veneration is not easy to come by for anyone–everyone is on a first-name basis. The rise of the media has bred a feeling of intimacy with strangers and celebrity culture has bred familiarity with famous people.

16 Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., America’s Constitutional Soul (Baltimore, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 188.

17 Ibid. This, of course, ties in closely to the rise of polling–the charismatic leader is looking to give the people what they want, as opposed to leading on principle.

18 Max Weber, H. H. Greth, and C. Wright, Mills, trans. And ed. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 295.

19 James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance In the White House, Fourth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992), p. xiii.

20 Ibid, p. 5.

21 Ibid, p. 4

22 Ibid, p. 489.

23 Ibid, p. 492.

24 Richard, Rose, The Postmodern President: George Bush Meets the World (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham

25 Max Weber, H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, p. 248.

26 Ibid, p. 249.

27 Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 191.

28 Ibid, 190-1.

29 Mansfield, pp. 188,9.

30 Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), p. 19

31 Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: The Free Press, 1996), pp. 113-114. For example, President Polk was a very small man. His wife directed the Marine band to play Hail to the Chief when he entered the room, so he would be noticed.

32 William J., Bennet, ed., Our Sacred Honor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 73

33 Brookhiser, p. 9.

34 James Madison, “Is There No Virtue Among Us?” Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788; Bennet, p. 243.

35 Seymour M. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997), pp. ix-x

36 Robert D. Novak, “All the Way with LBJ: Johnson Leaves the Presidency Reeling,” The Weekly Standard, December 1, 1997, p. 37.

37 James Cannon, “Gerald R. Ford,” in Robert A. Wilson, Character Above All: The Ten Presidents From FDR to George Bush (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 146-7.

38. Author Noemi Emery, in criticizing what she argues is Bennett’s overly virtuous view of the Founders, believes that they were concerned with checks on the individual “precisely because they knew [personally] the power of self indulgence and the disorder it could bring.” Noemi Emery, “For God and Country: William J. Bennett’s Book of the Founders,” The Weekly Standard, December 1, 1997, pp. 31-33.


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