PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: A FICTION OF CONVENIENCE, OR A
Presented by Max E. Kirk, Cedar Falls Supper Club, April 19, 2011
Every academic discipline examines leadership in one form or another with
multiple theories advanced to explain how we choose and respond to our leaders. Any
discussion of leadership, whether it be in politics or business, can benefit from a summary
of some of these leadership theories.
1. GREAT MAN THEORY. The theory of great man leadership assumes
that a leader’s capacity is inherent. In other words, great leaders are born and not made.
These theories often portray great leaders in a mythical sense and assume that they are
destined to rise to leadership when needed. A great man is often lurking in the general
population and hopefully that person will be in a position of leadership when the need
arises. Historically, the “great man” theory of leadership has focused on primarily male
leadership qualities, especially in terms of the military.
An example of the great man theory of leadership might certainly be George
Washington. The theory holds that without a person of Washington’s inherent ethics,
morality and intellectual discipline, the country in its formative years could easily have
slipped back into a monarchy or emerged as some type of weak executive parliamentary
type system of government. Only by Washington’s presence were we able to avoid such a
2. TRAIT THEORY OF LEADERSHIP. The trait theory of leadership is
somewhat similar to the great man theory in that it assumes certain people inherit certain
qualities and traits to make them better suited to leadership. With regard to these leaders,
we looked at those who are trained at the great public institutions, such as Harvard or
Princeton. We also look at military leaders such as Eisenhower, who presumably will
function well in the presidency because of the decisive training they received in the
military. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. As we will discuss in more detail later,
Ulysses S. Grant is an example of the complete disconnection between presidential
leadership and prior military leadership. Another example may be seen in Dwight D.
Eisenhower. As “Supreme Commander” of the Allied forces in World War II,
Eisenhower was responsible for planning and executing the invasion of northwestern
Europe that eventually took place on June 6, 1944 and seeing the war through its ultimate
conclusion. One can hardly imagine a game played with higher stakes or with more
complex operations than the D-day invasion, the conquest of Nazi Germany. Eisenhower
was continually able to elicit cooperation, foster optimism while maintaining the
confidence of the American public. In a letter to his son, written in 1943, Eisenhower
summarized his view of leadership as follows:
“The one quality that can be developed by studious reflection and practice
is the leadership of man. The idea is to get people working together, not
only because you tell them to so and enforce your orders, but because they
instinctively want to do it for you. . . .Essentially you must be devoted to
duty, sincere, fair and cheerful. You do not need to be a glad-hander, nor a
salesman, but your men must trust you and instinctively wish to win your
approbation to avoid things that call upon you for correction.”
Most agree that when he was elected president in 1952 Eisenhower was considered an
authentic hero. His failure to assert leadership in the postwar era constitutes what many
consider a failure of his presidency. His approach on civil rights was, at best, tepid. He
refused to announce his approval of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of
Education. He wavered in his support of civil rights legislation in the mid-1950s and
while he did commit federal troops to the integration of Central High in Little Rock,
Arkansas, he never offered his judgment or opinion on the issue of integration itself. His
approach to civil rights was very narrow and proceduralist, hoping the matter could be
deferred to the next administration.
It has been suggested that Eisenhower was at his best when the goal was defined
for him and his assignment was to win the war in Europe. When called on, however, to
define the goal himself, and sometimes face hostility in achieving the goal, Eisenhower
vacillated and was deficient.
3. CONTINGENCY THEORIES. The contingency theory advances that
there are so many variables related to leadership that no particular style of leadership may
be considered best suited for every situation. Success of a leader under the contingency
theory depends on a number of variables, including the leadership style, quality of the
followers and all aspects of the situation.
These leadership theories are by no means exclusive, but they do serve as a useful
focus in examining presidential leadership.
ULYSSES S. GRANT
Ulysses S. Grant was elected President of the United States in 1868 and re-elected
four years later. His second term was marred by scandals, none of which involved Grant
personally. He was vilified by both political parties and thought unfit to be President.
Grant was characterized as coarse, inept, unforgiving. Some characterized him as a
lowlife who presided over the “blackout of honest government” during the reconstruction
years and who personally ushered in the excess and dishonesty associated with the Gilded
Age of the 1870s and 1880s. No less a commentator than Richard Hofstater characterized
Grants administrations as “notorious for their corruption”. Others, such as Edmund
Wilson stated that during Grants two administrations “their flapped through the national
capitol a whole phantasmagoria of insolent fraud, while a swarm of predatory adventurers
was let loose on the helpless South”.
In truth, Grant’s administration featured courageous efforts to ensure civil rights
not only for newly freed slaves, but also for whites residing in the confederate states.
Grant entered the White House determined to secure national reconciliation. His prestige
and influence were important in the ratification of the 15th amendment, banning
disenfranchisement on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In early
1870s, he directed the recently created Department of Justice to begin the vigorous
pursuit and prosecution of the Klan which was reeking havoc and violence in the southern
states. It was at Grant’s initiative that Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan act, making it a
federal crime to conspire to overthrow the US Government or conspire to prevent citizens
from holding office, voting, or otherwise enjoying equal protection under the law. He
ordered federal troops stationed in the South to aid federal officials in breaking up Klan
marauders. He suspended habeas corpus in certain South Carolina counties where the
violence was most rampant and directed an effort by which the Justice Department
secured over 3,000 indictments for violations of the Klan Act. In all respects, Grant
pushed for national reconciliation with equal and civil political rights regardless of race.
Grant’s last effort to quell white southern uprising occurred with a series of events
that occurred in 1872 after both Republicans and Democrats claimed that they had won
the Louisiana Governor’s race. A federal judge ruled in the Republican’s favor and Grant
dispatched troops to enforce the decision. The local white population responded by
forming a new paramilitary group, which mounted coordinated attacks upon blacks and
republicans alike. In Colfax, Louisiana, the black controlled government took up arms to
protect the county Courthouse. On Easter Sunday 1873 a force of some three hundred
whites attacked, killed more than one hundred blacks and destroying the Courthouse.
Emboldened by the is, white supremacists formed the White League new Paramilitary
organization. Grant responded swiftly, issuing a proclamation that the white league
disburse or face federal military intervention. He followed this up with five thousand
troops and three gun boats which were sent to New Orleans.
By this time, much of the country and certainly the South had grown tired of
reconstruction conflict. Most of the country had grown tired of any commitment for civil
rights for blacks. In the last two years of his administration, Grant continued to be the
only leading figure inside the federal government who was concerned about protecting
equal rights in the South. Grant’s death in 1885 spared him witnessing how badly the
federal government failed to protect the suffrage and civil rights of freed blacks in the
South. It can be argued that but for Grant’s swift and certain intervention and
commitment of federal troops, white supremacists would have split off southern states to
resume their segregated policies denying the federal government its right to enforce the
civil rights amendments. Grant will be remembered for the scandals which occurred
during his administration and economic panics, none of which were of his making. These
matters have long overshadowed his true leadership in facing a hostile congress, a hostile
Court and, at best, an apathetic public in standing staunchly for civil rights of freed blacks
in the immediate post-civil war period.
JIMMY CARTER: I WILL NEVER LIE TO YOU
Jimmy Carter was by any respect sufficiently educated, (U.S. Naval Academy and
Nuclear Physics) trained, (Naval Officer, Peanut Farmer and Governor of the State of
Georgia) and moral (strong southern Baptist background) to be an ideal President. In
practice however, the Presidency of Jimmy Carter is viewed as undistinguished and lack
luster. Was this the result of unanticipated crisis over which Carter had no control?
Probably not, because every President has those issues. Was his relative failure due to
lack of ambition or initiatives? Probably not. In many respects Jimmy Carter was an
activist who wanted to instill a great sense of human rights in the foreign policy of the
country. In all likelihood, Jimmy Carter was an excellent bureaucrat who had a passion
for the process of government, not what government could accomplish. Carter believed
in the process of government meaning that if the process was good, the end result would
be good. As part of the process he made sure to immerse himself in the many details of
each decision to be accomplished. Thus, by being fully advised with all the minutia of
any particular project, the process would be good and if the process was good, the end
result would be good. Unfortunately, Carter found out that the process is not a substitute
for substance. The process can also produce conflicting, competing and often times
confusing programs which seem to mark the Carter administration. Carter’s
administration was often times split with cabinet members and department heads taking
differing positions. He failed to set clear policy goals and then motivate his own
administration let alone congress to implement any goals. He aspired to make the
Governor “confident and compassionate” and responsive to the American people and
their expectations. He had some noticeable foreign policy successes such as The Camp
David Agreement of 1978, between Egypt and Israel. He also completed negotiation of
nuclear arms limitation treatises and full diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic
of China. On the other hand, he presided over The fall of the Shah of Iran and his failure
to secure release of the hostages seemed to indicate the impotence of the American
military and foreign policy.
In may respects, Carter failed to establish any philosophy of leadership. He did
like to preach however to the American people about their shortcomings. Early in his
administration, when inflation was rampant and energy prices soaring, he went to the
Presidential Retreat at Camp David for some soul searching. When he returned he
scheduled a national address which he told the American public that there was a deep
malaise in the American public. Frankly, most of the American public thought there was
a deep malaise in their President and resented his insinuation that all of the external
circumstances battering the country were our fault. Right or wrong, Jimmy Cater seemed
to preach that there were shortcomings in the American public that could be overcame by
hard adherence to the puritan work ethic and a more humane foreign policy. People
didn’t buy it as evidenced by his resounding defeat by the great communicator in the 1980
History remembers President Reagan in a number of ways, most of which are
extremely positive. He was the Great Communicator. He was the man that ended the
Cold War and challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. He launched the Star Wars
initiative and brought the Soviet Union to its knees and is truly the Cold War “Warrior”.
Consequently, his reputation among political conservatives is epic assuming almost
superhero proportions. Everyone wants to be like Reagan. Everyone wants to touch the
hem of his robe and gain some sort of validity from embracing his values. I suggest that
his near cult status is based more on fond recollection that upon reality. If anything, the
conservative superhero status is a myth created more to provide a common front than to
reflect reality. If anything, Reagan was not the conservative people claim he was.
The website Think Progress has compiled a list of ten things we must consider
when assessing whether or not Reagan was a true conservative as is currently portrayed.
1. Reagan was a serial tax raiser. As governor of California, Reagan “signed
into law the largest tax increase in the history of any state up till then.” Meanwhile, state
spending nearly doubled. As president, Reagan “raised taxes in seven of his eight years in
office,” including four times in just two years. As former GOP Senator Alan Simpson,
who called Reagan “a dear friend,” told NPR, “Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times in
his administration - I was there.” “Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes,” said historian
Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s memoir. Reagan the anti-tax zealot is “false
mythology,” Brinkley said.
2. Reagan nearly tripled the federal budget deficit. During the Reagan years,
the debt increased to nearly $3 trillion, “roughly three times as much as the first 80 years
of the century had done altogether.” Reagan enacted a major tax cut his first year in office
and government revenue dropped off precipitously. Despite the conservative myth that tax
cuts somehow increase revenue, the government went deeper into debt and Reagan had to
raise taxes just a year after he enacted his tax cut. Despite ten more tax hikes on
everything from gasoline to corporate income, Reagan was never able to get the deficit
3. Unemployment soared after Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts. Unemployment
jumped to 10.8 percent after Reagan enacted his much-touted tax cut, and it took years for
the rate to get back down to its previous level. Meanwhile, income inequality exploded.
Despite the myth that Reagan presided over an era of unmatched economic boom for all
Americans, Reagan disproportionately taxed the poor and middle class, but the economic
growth of the 1980's did little help them. “Since 1980, median household income has
risen only 30 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average incomes at the top have tripled
or quadrupled,” the New York Times’ David Leonhardt noted.
4. Reagan grew the size of the federal government tremendously. Reagan
promised “to move boldly, decisively, and quickly to control the runaway growth of
federal spending,” but federal spending “ballooned” under Reagan. He bailed out Social
Security in 1983, after attempting to privatize it, and set up a progressive taxation system
to keep it funded into the future. He promised to cut government agencies like the
Department of Energy and Education but ended up adding one of the largest — the
Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which today has a budget of nearly $90 billion and close
to 300,000 employees. He also hiked defense spending by over $100 billion a year to a
level not seen since the height of the Vietnam war.
5. Reagan did little to fight a woman’s right to choose. As governor of
California in 1967, Reagan signed a bill to liberalize the state’s abortion laws that
“resulted in more than a million abortions.” When Reagan ran for president, he advocated
a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited all abortions except when
necessary to save the life of the mother, but once in office, he “never seriously pursued”
6. Reagan was a “bellicose peacenik.” He wrote in his memoirs that “[m]y
dream…became a world free of nuclear weapons.” “This vision stemmed from the
president’s belief that the biblical account of Armageddon prophesied nuclear war — and
that apocalypse could be averted if everyone, especially the Soviets, eliminated nuclear
weapons,” the Washington Monthly noted. And Reagan’s military buildup was meant to
crush the Soviet Union, but “also to put the United States in a stronger position from
which to establish effective arms control” for the entire world — a vision acted out by
Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, when he became president.
7. Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Reagan
signed into law a bill that made any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982
eligible for amnesty. The bill was sold as a crackdown, but its tough sanctions on
employers who hired undocumented immigrants were removed before final passage. The
bill helped 3 million people and millions more family members gain American residency.
It has since become a source of major embarrassment for conservatives.
8. Reagan illegally funneled weapons to Iran. Reagan and other senior U.S.
officials secretly sold arms to officials in Iran, which was subject to a an arms embargo at
the time, in exchange for American hostages. Some funds from the illegal arms sales also
went to fund anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua — something Congress had already
prohibited the administration from doing. When the deals went public, the Iran-Contra
Affair, as it came to be known, was an enormous political scandal that forced several
senior administration officials to resign.
9. Reagan vetoed a comprehensive anti-Apartheid act. which placed sanctions
on South Africa and cut off all American trade with the country. Reagan’s veto was
overridden by the Republican-controlled Senate. Reagan responded by saying “I deeply
regret that Congress has seen fit to override my veto,” saying that the law “will not solve
the serious problems that plague that country.”
10. Reagan helped create the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Reagan fought a
proxy war with the Soviet Union by training, arming, equipping, and funding Islamist
mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan. Reagan funneled billions of dollars, along with
top-secret intelligence and sophisticated weaponry to these fighters through the Pakistani
intelligence service. The Talbian and Osama Bin Laden — a prominent mujahidin
commander — emerged from these mujahidin groups Reagan helped create, and U.S.
policy towards Pakistan remains strained because of the intelligence services’ close
relations to these fighters. In fact, Reagan’s decision to continue the proxy war after the
Soviets were willing to retreat played a direct role in Bin Laden’s ascendancy.
One of the most inexplicable stories of the Reagan administration began to come
to light in 1985. The story was leaked that American operatives had negotiated a deal
with the regime of Muslim fundamentalists Ayatollah Khomeini, the man responsible for
the incarceration of the American hostages between 1979 and 1981. According to the
story, American operatives authorized the shipment of sophisticated weapons to the
Khomeini regime on behalf of the President of the United States. Additionally, the arms
sales to Iran were conducted at a significant mark up in price creating profits from the
transactions. The profits were funneled into a Swiss bank account and thereby to the anticommunist
gorillas in Nicaragua known as the Contras who were trying to overthrow the
communist regime known as the Sandinistas. Reagan hailed the Contras as “freedom
fighters” and the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers”. Most observers saw the
Contras as typical Central American right wing thugs.
As the story started to get out, there was a cover up, of course. The Attorney
General Edwin Meese was reluctant to investigate. Oliver North conducted a “shredding
party” to destroy relevant documents. The whole affair was in blatant contradiction of
U.S. law so the question immediately focused on what did the President know and when
did he know it. In the case of Richard Nixon, the answers to those questions were
everything and immediately. In the case of Reagan however, it became apparent that
Reagan was disconnected, remote and uninformed. The true facts of the Iran-Contra arms
exchange became known. Reagan went on television to issue the following apology: “I
told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and best intentions
still tell me this is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
Congressional hearings in the appointment of a special prosecutor brought
fourteen indictments and eleven convictions to those involved in the Iran-Contra matter.
Some were pardoned, some served time, and some had their convictions reversed on
appeal. Surprisingly, Reagan was not directly affected by the Iran-Contra scandal and his
obvious lack of knowledge and control of those working directly under the authority of
his office. He was probably too personally popular to face impeachment. It seems as
though the American public so personally fond of Reagan was willing to let him ride into
the sunset but serious questions about his mental competency and managerial skill were
present. The fiction of Reagan as the grandfather’s quipster was maintained. Any serious
analysis would have forced the public to come to grips with realities that were very
unsettling to their heartfelt beliefs regarding their President. In reality, it was best just to
let him be and remember what the public wanted to remember rather than the reality of
For further reading in these areas, please consider the following:
Walter Isaacson, Editor. Profiles and Leadership: Historians on the Illusive
Quality of Greatness; WW Norton and Company, New York (2010).
Jim Cullen, Imperfect Presidents, Fall River Press (2007).
Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant, American Hero, America Myth; University of North
Carolina Press (2009).
Additionally, you can find any number of toxic blogs on any president you choose.