The Hauenstein Center, in partnership with the Peter F. Secchia Family, Meijer Foundation, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation hosted the second biennial Character and the Presidency event on October 3, 2017 at the L.V. Eberhard Center on the campus of Grand Valley State University. Ambassador Peter Secchia also addressed why he felt the need to initiate a hard-hitting series on character in the presidency.
The event featured political commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks and presidential historian and Huntington Library fellow Dr. Ronald C. White for a panel discussion about examples of character and leadership in the American presidency. The Director of the Hauenstein Center, Gleaves Whitney, moderated the panel.
Whitney opened the discussion asking the panelist to define character and where it comes from. Brooks indicated that the basis for his book The Road to Character theorized that character is the ability to “identify your core sin and fight it.” Citing an example from his book, Brooks said that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs showed he recognized his temper as his weakness and he knew he had to control his temper in order to be an effective leader. Brooks stated that his book centers on the idea that the key to character is humility and the ability to see yourself honestly and work on you own weakness.
Referencing his two biographies he wrote: American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant and A. Lincoln: A Biography, White stated that the mothers and wives of the two Presidents shaped their character. In researching his two books, White indicated it was President Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother and President Ulysses S. Grant’s mother that shaped their characters and served as key mentors in the formative years of their lives.
Whitney raised the topic of character and leadership and recalled President Ford’s belief that trust is the most important character trait. Whitney reflected upon President Ford’s statement that the essence of leadership is “people have to know that you will do what you say you’re going to do.” White responded by stating character and leadership requires “self-effacement” or pointing beyond yourself. Using an example from his book, White indicated President Grant sought the Office of the President not for his own ambitions but so that “we could preserve the great victories of [the Civil War].” Brooks responded to the same question with an observation he has often made which is that with President Ford, and in general the people of the Midwest, humility is a key character trait. Brooks and White offered more examples of character and leadership from Presidents Grant, Lincoln, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Whitney followed with a question as to whether President Ford, Washington or Lincoln could be elected in today’s political climate. Brooks said they could not be elected today because of the shift in our culture. Brooks noted that studies show the personal pronoun “I” is used more today than in previous generations that seemed to exhibit more self-effacement and humility. Brooks commented that we elect people of good character but we send them into a “rotten” political system.
As an example, White cited CBS News journalist Eric Sevareid and his comments on Harry Truman, which were used in David McCullough’s book Truman. Sevareid stated that while he, like others, disagreed with Truman policies, he believed in his character. White also stated that it is someone’s character that allows them to be heard by their constituents, and not the elected office they may have won or the CEO position they were appointed to. Brooks summarized that politicians run for office with the best intentions but are faced with a “moral compromise” by subjecting themselves to the course nature of the current political system.
Whitney followed by asking the panelist whether our politics has gotten to the point where we just elect officials to get things done without regard to character or ethics. Brooks theorized that American culture has become corrosive but it is not lost, and backed his theory citing examples of positive outcomes after the 1960s culture. Brooks said that recent polls indicate today’s generation has a general lack of trust in government and each other as neighbors. White responded that the distrust of government has affected lack of compromise to our policymaking. He noted that Senator Henry Clay was once heralded as the “Great Compromiser” which would not receive the same accolades in today’s political climate.
Hauenstein Center program manager for the Initiative for the Common Good Scott St. Louis introduced the panel. The program began with a brief clip from a documentary produced by Ambassador Peter Secchia entitled Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character that demonstrated what was referred to in the film as the “moral courage” made by President Ford’s decision to pardon President Richard M. Nixon. Secchia provided additional background into the documentary and how he felt compelled to highlight President Ford’s character especially in today’s political environment. The panel closed the event by taking questions from the audience.