Presidential historian makes the case for taking the long-term view of the presidency at Steamboat Seminars
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — What makes a good president? What makes a bad one?
On Monday, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith pondered this question at a Seminars at Steamboat lecture.
Smith, the author of multiple presidential and presidential candidates’ biographies, has served as director of several presidential libraries and worked in several roles within the national political scene.
“Five months from now, Iowa will begin the quadrangle process of choosing a president,” Smith said, with the slight lilt of a New England accent. “What test will they apply? What standard should they have in mind? The constitution offers little guidance.”
That 200-year-old document requires only that the president is at least 35 years old, a 14 year resident of the country and a natural-born citizen.
“No way does that organic charter preference educational background, communication skills, administrative or legislative experience, nor does it mention any personal traits, such as judgment, compassion or the all-purpose resume buster: works well with others.”
A decision on these qualifications and other factors, such as ideology, are left to the electorate, Smith said.
A theme of Smith’s lecture was the idea that judgment on a president should be held until after the cards of history fall.
“While some presidents are literally carved in stone, most are subject to endless revisionism,” he said.
There are nuances to every president — good policies, good personal actions and bad policies and personal actions. For some presidents, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we remember the good, not the criticisms they faced at the time. Opinions of other presidents shift as the years pass.
Lincoln, at the time of his presidency, was criticized by the London Post in 1864 as a man “who could not read the signs of the time, who plunged his country into a great war without a plan, who failed without an excuse and who fell without a friend,” Smith said.
According to Smith, the passing of time makes us evaluate presidents differently than we do in the play-by-play, 24-hour coverage of the modern news cycle.
“It takes time for perspective to form,” Smith said. “It takes time for passions to cool, for papers to become available, for people in the administration to come forward and perhaps speak with greater candor than on the night of Inauguration Day. It takes time for us to outgrow Clinton fatigue, Bush fatigue, Obama fatigue — to move beyond the conflict and clickbait of the modern media culture and compare them to their successors who were fated to deal with the same issues which transcend any one administration.”
History and the presidency are ever-evolving, Smith indicated. The 1960s changed how Americans viewed history, as people began to consider the perspectives of Native Americans, LGBTQ residents, people with disabilities and people who were left out of the national narrative until that point, Smith said.
In the case of the presidency, issues, such as economy, weren’t so frequently blamed on whomever was in that position when the federal government had a smaller share of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, as it did in the 1930s and prior.
He offered up “five highly personal, decidedly non-traditional rules by which to distinguish” the greats presidents from the bad:
- “Character counts, never more so than when the president commits young Americans to battle,” Smith said. Character, by Smith’s definition, appeared to be the pursuit of the national interest over the pull of short-term glory, gloating or improvements to a president’s reputation.
- “Presidents require a sense of history,” Smith said. Presidents should know history in order to learn lessons to avoid repeating events of the past.
- “After a sense of history, presidents should have a sense of humility, which is often expressed as a sense of humor,” Smith said. “To laugh at one’s self is the ultimate antidote to Potomac Fever and the corruption of the ego to which it leads.”
- “Successful presidents are mindful of T.R.’s maxim: Keep your feet on the ground, and your eyes on the stars,” Smith said, referencing a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt. Smith cited Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford’s rise from the struggles in various aspects, from their health to personal lives and upbringing, as evidence of this rule.
- “The presidency is first and always a political job,” Smith said. “Every face on Mount Rushmore is the face of a master politician.”
Smith refused to pass any judgment on President Donald Trump, though it’s a question he’s asked frequently.
“I think it’s impossible to pass historical, as opposed to journalistic judgment, on a sitting president or for that matter, the last few presidents,” Smith said. He added that he was intelligent enough to realize that making any statement about the incumbent president would alienate half the people in the room and turn them off to his objectivity as a historian for the rest of the evening.
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