I don’t have a candidate yet, but I do have some traditional requirements. Most of the time, we elect either state governors or generals who have won wars. There are good and obvious reasons: We want leaders who have executive experience making difficult decisions, whether on the political or military battlefield, leaders who know how to manage a large and complex enterprise, leaders who have dealt with internal and external criticism, and who have kept together sometimes-fractious teams of advisers, colleagues and subordinates. That’s the overall requirement for me.
Second: I don’t want someone from business who has no experience in politics or the military; the worlds are too different, and we don’t have time for the next president to learn the basic rules.
Third: I don’t want a legislator whose career has been almost exclusively in politics. Congressmen and senators only give speeches. If the speech doesn’t work out too well, they give a different one next time, they rarely pay a meaningful price for getting it wrong. And they don’t have management experience, they’ve never been tested as leaders. The only people they manage are personal (or sometimes committee) staffers, who rarely have the confidence to criticize the boss. But I think it’s important that our leaders have a good record recruiting and keeping talented staffers. I would have doubts about a candidate whose staff has changed early and often.
Just look at the last two presidents we elevated from the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the United States Senate: John F. Kennedy and Barack H. Obama. Disasters. And Kennedy had some military experience, even. It wasn’t nearly enough. You might be tempted to cite Harry Truman as a case in counterpoint, but he was Veep for a while…
Fourth: I have a strong preference for someone who has failed, learned from failure, and overcome it. One of my heroes is Thomas Edison, whose search for a workable filament for the first electric light bulb produced thousands of failures. He delighted in them, learning from each one. We are fallible; our presidents are going to make mistakes. I want a president who knows that going in, and who is quick to spot his blunder and will look for a better way.
Fifth and closely related to #4: I don’t want a ditherer, I want a decision-maker. Years ago I asked one of my favorite Americans — a great success in business — how he’d done it. “Well it certainly wasn’t brain power,” he said (he’d had a mediocre college record at a middling school). “The most important thing was to keep making decisions. I knew most of them would be wrong, so I watched for them to fail, and then tried something else.”
Sixth: I don’t want someone who is obsessed with doing the “right and proper and good thing.” Sometimes there is no good option and the president will have to choose among various poor, and sometimes even evil, options. It’s a legitimate and urgent choice, and I want a president who will make the best choice available. The president has to make some tough decisions. Sometimes they are terrible decisions. But they have to be made, and only he or she can make them. Like justice, policy delayed is often policy denied. Ask the Syrian and Iranian people about that. Faster, please.
In tough times like today’s, those who have had to make such decisions are more often than not military leaders, and I am convinced that the best group of contemporary Americans are those who have been in war. I’m delighted to see veterans winning political office, and we may yet see a presidential candidate emerge from their ranks, either this time around or in the near future. If there’s no suitable presidential candidate, then I would welcome a vice president from the armed forces.
I don’t expect to find a candidate with all these qualities, but that’s my set of requirements. There are no guarantees, needless to say. Jimmy Carter was a governor with plenty of military experience, and he was an awful president. Someone who fulfills my requirements sounds like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln (or maybe better TR or Jackson), I know. We should be so lucky.