Character and the President: A Historian’s Take

Bush Obama

Katherine Sibley teaches history at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.  In an interview at The Asbury Park Press she discusses character and the presidency.

Here is a taste:

How would you define “good character” and has the meaning evolved in any way over time?

One definition of good character, I think, would have to include a cluster of qualities: integrity, trustworthiness, flexibility, understanding, empathy and a set of values from open-mindedness to concern for human rights.

While good character seems a solid concept, an evolution does continue to occur in what we think of as comprising that set of values. A president like Woodrow Wilson, for instance, was considered an outstanding character in his day, a man of high moral integrity, but what we have learned in recent years about his racism and how that affects his legacy now has certainly shifted our view of him, demonstrating how our constellation of positive character traits evolves.

How good of a predictor is “character” as a measure of a president’s likely success in office?

Character is important, but it is not an ironclad predictor. Think of Herbert Hoover: he was an excellent Commerce Secretary, and had all the potential of being a superior president. He proved his good character in numerous humanitarian efforts in World War I and after. Yet he was not a good president; the very traits that in other circumstances had served him well — steadfastness and the strength of his convictions, prevented him from being flexible when he needed to be, to deal with the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter, too — another president of high moral character, but one who struggled to deal with the hostage crisis and economic challenges effectively.

That being said, since we do not know what challenges presidents will encounter, there seems little question that a president with a good character, including a set of values and principles that allow for an open-minded approach, will have the potential to be more successful, or at least to leave a more successful legacy. Both Hoover and Carter faced crippling crises that would deeply challenge anyone. Presidents who have faced less crucial moments in our history and whose character is on the whole unbesmirched — think of Barack Obama and George H. W. Bush, for example — will, I would argue, see their administrations’ successes more greatly noticed by future historians when there is great context in which to explore them.

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