Leading from the Center

Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents


By Gil Troy

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George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy-most would agree their presidencies were among the most successful in American history. But what made these very different men such effective leaders? According to presidential historian Gil Troy, these presidents succeeded not because of their bold political visions, but because of their moderation. Although many of the presidential hopefuls for 2008 will claim to be moderates, the word cannot conceal a political climate defined by extreme rhetoric and virulent partisanship. In Leading From the Center, Gil Troy argues that this is a distinctly un-American state of affairs. The great presidents of American history have always sought a golden mean-from Washington, who brilliantly mediated between the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to Lincoln, who rescued the Union with his principled pragmatism, to the two Roosevelts, who united millions of Americans with their powerful, affirmative, nationalist visions. As America lines up to select a president for the future, Gil Troy astutely reminds us of the finest traditions of presidential leadership from our nation’s past.


To my wife Linda and our four children,
For, with the joy of the dove celebrating spring,
moderating my path by helping me follow this golden law:
“. . . preserve sound judgment and discretion,
keep them in mind.These qualities will enliven your soul
and be an ornament gracing your neck.Then you will go
on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.”
Proverbs 3: 21-23

A “Middle Course” for Our “Common Cause”
IT MAY HAVE BEEN THE MOST important dinner party in American history. In June 1790, three titans of the new republic—Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Congressman James Madison—broke bread, drank port, and talked late into the night. Dining together, these patriotic statesmen brokered a deal to keep America united. They may be remembered as equally bewigged, staid Founding Fathers, but each was a headstrong individual, and their visions of how America’s new Constitution should work clashed. Their political and philosophical disagreements became so intense they would roil George Washington’s administration and threaten the states’ still fragile, national alliance.
Despite the elegant candlelight at 57 Maiden Lane in New York, the dinner must have been awkward. The host, Thomas Jefferson, an aristocratic polymath but no genius at human relations, was an unlikely mediator who was more partisan than his reputation as the philosopher of freedom would suggest. He had known his fellow Virginian, the shy, cerebral constitutionalist James Madison, for years. Having met the glib, cosmopolitan secretary of the treasury upon returning from France only weeks earlier in March, Jefferson did not yet know Hamilton well enough to loathe him. Within months, the two would become the most famous rivals in early American history, representing opposing camps, ideologies, and sensibilities.
Jefferson had joined Washington’s cabinet vowing to avoid petty intrigues; Hamilton and Madison had collaborated on a classic warning against partisanship in writing the Federalist Papers. Yet, having fought together to ratify the Constitution, Madison and Hamilton now fought each other over how to implement it. Favoring strong centralized government, Hamilton proposed that the new federal government pay off the states’ Revolutionary War debts. More virtuous farmer than sophisticated financier, Madison feared the scheme would penalize responsible states like his native Virginia, which had already settled its debts, and would unfairly reward profligate northern states that had ignored their debts, banking on an eventual federal windfall. Virginia’s Revolutionary War hero, Lighthorse Harry Lee, captured the southern sentiment, preferring to dissolve the union rather than succumb to a “fixed insolent northern majority.”
“In general I think it necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours,” Jefferson magnanimously declared that June. An enlightened rationalist, Jefferson hosted the dinner with Hamilton and Madison because he believed that “men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along.” This repast resulted in the Compromise of 1790.
In this great American accord, the two Virginians, Jefferson and Madison, delivered enough southerners’ votes in Congress to pass Hamilton’s ambitious, counterintuitive plan to prove America’s fiscal responsibility by assuming, then paying off the war debts. In return, Hamilton supported situating the nation’s capital farther south along the Potomac River, carving out a city from two slave states, Maryland and Virginia. By August, Jefferson reported that a spirit of compromise had restored the congressional harmony disrupted by the two thorny questions of the debt and the capital’s location.
This harmonious tale slights a critical player, President George Washington. Its spirit of moderation testifies to Washington’s leadership. George Washington championed the middle course as the best path. As president, he fostered what he called “a spirit of accommodation.” Washington embodied Americans’ commitment to a “common cause,” and he repeatedly urged his squabbling subordinates to find those “mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity,” even by sacrificing “individual advantages to the interest of the Community.”
George Washington’s first inauguration, at Federal Hall in New York City, on April 30, 1789, launched the new nation in a spirit of harmony and compromise. (National Archives)
Unlike Jefferson, Washington was too discreet to leave a diary entry or write a letter detailing his contribution to what must have been many dinners, exchanges, calculations, and clashes before the legendary meal. Even as the president fought pneumonia during the spring, he warned that discretion remained essential. When Washington went sailing with his secretaries of state and treasury that June, he recorded in his diary the fish caught and the warm sentiments exchanged, not the political give and take that undoubtedly occurred among the men.
As the story of the peacemaking banquet took on legendary proportions, it validated Washington’s mission to preserve the union’s serenity by finding “sensible men” who could resist democratic politics’ tide of vitriol. The two volatile questions, of the debt and the capital city’s location, terrified Washington. He realized they could upend the states’ still uneasy alliance. After Hamilton and Madison had compromised, the president, invoking one of his favorite phrases, invited all Americans to look forward to “enjoying peace abroad, with tranquility at home.”
WASHINGTON’S WAY, this often subtle search for the center, has been the secret to American political success. This spirit of compromise is one of America’s signature contributions to the noble story of democratic leadership since the 1700s. It is tragic that the capital city named after George Washington, so carefully, sensitively, poised between north and south, would come to represent partisanship, polarization, extremism, and intrigue. By 2007, Connecticut’s Senator Joseph Lieberman was complaining, “There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism.” Defying his party’s most passionate partisans, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee denounced this “political climate where, for many people, when George Bush says ‘yes,’ their reflex reaction is to say ‘no.’” In that spirit, New York’s legendary Mayor Ed Koch once challenged his constituents, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Today’s world is too dangerous for Americans to be so deeply, angrily, and unreasonably divided. Enlightened self-interest, wherein the right thing to do is the smart thing to do, calls for reason and unity, not emotion and demagogy. America needs passionate centrists ready to elect presidents leading from the center. And those presidents should be muscular moderates, visionary enough to preserve core values but nationalistic enough and popular enough to root their actions in a broad consensus, which they must often build.
Americans expect their leaders to seek the center. They have long rewarded leaders who built big, broad political tents driven deep into America’s rich soil, rather than those who put up partisan lean-tos tilting left or right. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation was actually a cautious state document with all the passion of an accountant’s ledger. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was an incremental zigzag that frustrated communists and plutocrats alike. But rather than representing a failure of leadership, these moments of moderation, like Washington’s persistent push for compromise in the 1790s, showcase Americans and their presidents at their best.
In the past, presidents often led from the center boldly. When Abraham Lincoln defined the American nation at Gettysburg, when Franklin Roosevelt restored national confidence during his First Hundred Days, when John F. Kennedy affirmed America’s moral commitment to civil rights—they all were leading the country to a new center. But center seeking often required great patience. There were no immediate results when George Washington mediated between warring cabinet secretaries or Abraham Lincoln deliberated and dithered as he wondered how to end slavery without losing the strategic border states. It took tremendous self-control for Theodore Roosevelt to settle 1902’s anthracite coal strike by arbitration not fiat and for Franklin D. Roosevelt to inch America step by step toward involvement in World War II. Americans displayed great fortitude as Harry Truman crafted a long-term, bipartisan Cold War containment policy that only truly bore fruit during Ronald Reagan’s presidency four decades later. Thinking creatively and cultivating broad alliances, presidents should push voters just enough so they move forward without losing their balance.
George Washington’s comportment was contagious. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson remained civil toward each other long after they learned to despise one another, as each competed for the great man’s blessing. Hamilton in particular became dramatically more vitriolic after he left the cabinet in 1795 and no longer interacted regularly with Washington, his mentor for two decades. Individually and collectively, in his lifetime and after his death, George Washington spread a gospel of civility and centrism that elevated Americans and the presidency.
ALTHOUGH PARTISAN MUDSLINGING is as American as apple pie, there is an equally long and vibrant tradition of cultivating civility and seeking the center. The Founders expected conflict, but they hoped to manage, subdue, and dissipate it. During the fight over ratifying the Constitution in 1787 and 1788, the man who would be remembered as the father of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote the classic American text on the subject. Writing under the pen name Publius with his friends Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison asserted that an effective government could manage “the violence of faction.” Madison sought “enlightened statesmen” who could balance clashing agendas, forging compromises that would serve the public good. But relying on leadership was not enough. The genius of the republican system of government was to filter popular opinion, trusting elites to shape popular impulses into constructive patriotic actions.
This vision of a political system balancing factions and refining the “public voice” culminated a twenty-year effort to master the science of politics, American style. Unlike the subsequent French and Russian Revolutions, the American Revolution was a most moderate rebellion. With gentlemen leaders like George Washington and James Madison rising up to preserve the status quo afterward, there was little social dislocation and no mass bloodletting. Fortunately lacking a Robespierre or a Lenin, free of mass seizures and deadly purges, the revolutionary era culminated with the Founders’ bundle of constitutional compromises to moderate conflict.
This notion of minimizing clashes, seeking the “public good,” is a major theme in American history. The United States was never an all-or-nothing country in which fanaticism reigned. Americans have tempered extreme views with pragmatic concerns. At heart, most Americans are incrementalists, who value change but base it on tradition. We need to reacquaint ourselves with George Washington’s open-tent rationalism, Abraham Lincoln’s level-headed pragmatism, Theodore Roosevelt’s red-white-and-blue romanticism, and Franklin Roosevelt’s problem-solving nationalism.
Most modern intellectuals dislike the idea of “nationalism,” the “particularly rotten apple,” as the leading German philosopher Ulrich Beck has written. Conveniently forgetting that nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations, cosmopolitan critics link nationalism with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism, and mass murder. Associating nationalism with Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, academics celebrate the European Union and other centers of enlightenment as “postnational.” Yet Europeans forget how Germanic Germans remain and how French the French still are, even when they all earn euros.
Nationalism, especially during the twentieth century, has unleashed great cruelty. But nationalism has also fueled many modern miracles, with America’s liberal democratic experiment perhaps the greatest success story. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have healed the sectional divide, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, formed successful businesses, or created the Internet. The American nation has generated mass prosperity, educated hundreds of millions, absorbed tens of millions of immigrants, encouraged scientific and technological breakthroughs, and spread essential rights along with liberating freedoms. Most important, because of their widespread faith in America’s founding tenets, Americans have accomplished all of this without radical revolutions, bloodshed, dictators, or class violence.
American nationalism is not just xenophobia or imperialism; American patriotism is not simply McCarthyism. When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he was reminding Americans of what united them as one nation—and evoking their highest national ideals. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism is an essential force in shaping an American center. Appeals to national hopes and virtues can moderate polarizing passions; the American way is to use the collective national identity to raise individuals to higher standards of belief, behavior, values, and accomplishments.
Alas, America’s historic commitment to centrism is menaced by the shrill invective resonating in Washington, in the media, on campus, and on the Internet, particularly the “blogosphere.” Our culture and politics are well matched. It is difficult to expect a politics of moderation in an age of excess; temperance cannot flourish in a culture of extravagance.
The middle has long been a very appealing, and very American, place to be—and must remain so. The “great American center” has a long, proud history of offering a muscular moderation, not a mushy middle. It is the moderation of the American revolutionaries, who refused to descend into anarchy or replace one monarchy with another. It is the centrism of George Washington, who governed by eloquently appealing to reason, a “middle course,” and our “common cause,” while balancing off his dueling disciples. It is the cautious, compassionate pragmatism of Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the union while leading it toward abolishing slavery. It is the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, who carved out “the plain people” coast to coast as the presidential constituency. It is the visionary, experimental incrementalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led a reluctant America in the late 1930s into the welfare state era, and then in the early 1940s led Americans away from isolation toward a heroic democratic intervention that saved the Western world. It is the bipartisan consensus forged by Harry Truman and maintained by the postwar presidents, culminating in the implosion of the Soviet Union and the crumbling of the communist bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it is the unity felt on September 11, 2001, as Americans grieved together, worked together, and committed to fighting together against the Islamist scourge.
Chapter by chapter, this book examines some of America’s greatest presidents. Emphasizing these great leaders’ tactical fluidity and nation-building vision yields fresh explanations for their successes. Other chapters show how too much stubbornness or weakness have caused presidents to fail. In assessing presidencies these days, most journalists tend to be Freudian, emphasizing character, while many historians remain Rooseveltian, judging chief executives by the standards of the ultimate presidential superhero, Franklin Roosevelt. Even the most successful conservative president of the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan, was often defined—and frequently defined himself—vis-à-vis Roosevelt.
Appreciating this tradition of leading muscular moderates challenges the conventional portraits of some of America’s most familiar presidents. George Washington, long underestimated as a figurehead, emerges as an effective, statesmanlike force for moderation and reason. By contrast, Abraham Lincoln, frequently hailed as bold and visionary, appears more cautious and consensus building. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most unlikely model moderate given his flamboyance and excitability, was a surprisingly soothing centrist anchored by his romantic American nationalism. And contrary to the continuing portraits of Franklin Roosevelt as either a crusading liberal or status quo sellout, his extraordinary ability to balance and reconcile the powerful forces buffeting America during the Great Depression and building up to World War II comes through clearly.
Looking at Roosevelt’s successors, the joint achievement of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in improvising a bipartisan Cold War strategy and establishing the protocols of the mutually reinforcing cultural consensus looms large. The first two years of John Kennedy’s presidency showcase the limits of moderation when pressing moral issues emerge, much like the situation facing the pre-Civil War presidents. But toward the end of his presidency, Kennedy rose to the civil rights challenge, demonstrating how presidents can channel radical impulses functioning as chief executives, not crusaders.
The presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter teach different lessons about moderate leadership. Each was surprisingly centrist in policy matters, especially domestically. But Johnson failed because he was too rigid regarding Vietnam. Nixon self-destructed because his tactical aggressiveness belied his policy centrism. Carter floundered because his lack of faith in America’s future contradicted Americans’ optimistic nationalism.
The three two-term presidents since 1980 offer interesting case studies in presidential statesmanship and center seeking. Ronald Reagan was more centrist than his conservative ideology and rhetoric suggested. Reagan repeatedly compromised, showing far more concern for national unity, relative political calm, and his own personal popularity than for conservative purity. Bill Clinton was even more accommodating than Reagan. But whereas Reagan remained anchored in his ideology and frequently demonstrated a muscular moderation, Clinton’s need to be loved made for a spineless centrism. Finally, if Bill Clinton was too concerned with public approval, George W. Bush has demonstrated the perils of not being sufficiently sensitive to popular opinion. Bush’s characteristic go-it-alone stance sullied the “goodly fabric” George Washington wove so carefully, illustrating the broad dangers to the body politic when a president is imprisoned by his convictions.
The Bill Clinton-George W. Bush obsession with winning at any price resulted in two, two-term presidencies, but at great cost. Both Clinton and Bush maneuvered masterfully to maintain power, but they further divided the American people. Just as Americans are starting to measure their “carbon footprints,” assessing how many noxious emissions each individual generates, we need to start measuring our leaders’ toxic footprints, measuring the poisonous fallout of particular actions, even if they were successful in the short term. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton kept his office and maintained his popularity, but at what cost to the nation’s soul? George W. Bush in 2004 won his reelection campaign, but at what cost to the nation’s psyche? Important presidential duties include strengthening democracy, uniting Americans, and reaffirming ideals; a president who leaves office with a nation further divided, demoralized, and doubting its own virtue is a failure, no matter how popular he or she may have been.
Great leaders are born and made. Each successful president brought particular talents and innate personality traits to the table, be it Washington’s reserve, Lincoln’s humility, Theodore Roosevelt’s bluster, Franklin Roosevelt’s agility, Truman’s directness, John Kennedy’s panache, or Ronald Reagan’s wit. Presidential success traditionally has married substantive achievement with stylistic popularity. Great presidents also succeeded by rooting their leadership projects in common aspirations their fellow citizens shared, which resonated with broader visions and conceptions of America during their respective eras. George Washington spoke the language of enlightened republicanism in the Age of Reason. Abraham Lincoln’s kindhearted, nationalistic, “my policy is to have no policy” approach offered an elastic centrism that enabled a racist America to free the slaves for the sake of union, not egalitarianism. Lincoln’s leadership went beyond both the “split-the-difference” compromising of party men like Henry Clay and the zealotry of the abolitionists. He followed a “middle measure” pragmatism, two decades before Charles Peirce formally defined the concept of “pragmatism” in American thought.
After the Civil War, most Northerners feared leaders who were too extremist and disdained those who were too compliant. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison were as despised as Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, the ineffectual accommodators who could not keep America united. Half a century later, Theodore Roosevelt pioneered a populist nationalism that mobilized a country unified by an increasingly popular and nationalized press. Franklin Roosevelt then perfected it, further weaving the country together in radio’s magic web. Finally, the bipartisan consensus leaders of the Cold War spoke authoritatively to a confident country with a strong sense of purpose. Alas, today the ugly political climate reflects a broader cynicism and loss of faith, especially among elites and political players.
Whereas being flexible and moderate helped the greatest American presidents succeed, some of the least successful presidents failed by being too rigid. Ideologues rarely make it to the White House. With the party system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emphasizing party loyalty and electability and the modern primary system emphasizing popularity and electability, most successful nominees have been conventional, compromising coalition builders, not flamethrowers. But once in office, some presidents dug their heels in so deeply on certain issues that they failed as presidents. James Buchanan’s unyielding support for the illegitimate, proslavery Lecompton constitution; Woodrow Wilson’s stubborn championship of the League of Nations treaty; and Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to South Vietnam even as the war there escalated, are examples of self-destructive presidential inflexibility. Although the outcome of the Iraq war is as yet unknown, it is clear that George W. Bush’s rigidity has proved highly, dysfunctionally divisive. Democratic leadership is a high-wire balancing act. Leaning too far in any direction or holding on too tight to heavy baggage risks a steep fall, often with no safety net.
THE PRESIDENT’S JOB is to preside. And presidents preside most effectively over this diverse country by pursuing centrism rather than riling partisans. Using slim majorities to impose radical changes on the country violates the implicit democratic contract between the leader and the people. Great presidents aim for the center, hitting the popular bull’s-eye as close as possible, albeit sometimes after repositioning it.
Today, with America threatened by Islamist terrorism and nuclear roguery, presidents must strive to overcome divisive politics and temper extreme positions. America prospers when it has a president who leads by consensus building. “Soldiering is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror,” one Civil War soldier wrote to his wife. Similarly, effective American democratic leadership requires long bouts of compromising, slogging through, and coalition building, punctuated by bursts of boldness and occasional flights of eloquence.
Admittedly, moderation is an odd thing to get passionate about. It is a posture, a tactic, a strategy, that by definition is not intended to make the blood boil. Moreover, it is a relative, ever-changing position. As public opinion fluctuates, conditions change, issues come and go, the elusive center shifts, too. In most Americans’ search for heroes, in modern academics’ search for radicals, in the media’s mania for headlines, moderation often seems to be a synonym for capitulation or indecision.
Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. No politician in the 1970s or 1980s wanted to be called a “wimp.” In mid-twentieth-century America, the dismissive term was “Caspar Milquetoast,” the name of the reedy, bespectacled, sniveling cartoon character who insisted on wearing a belt and suspenders. Prior to that, the pejorative label was “mugwump,” early American slang for an Indian chief, which evolved into a nickname for elite political reformers in the late 1800s. By the 1930s, the Blue Earth Post in Minnesota was defining mugwump as “a sort of bird that sits on a fence with his mug on one side, and his wump on the other.” In 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle dismissed the Democratic centrist Bill Clinton as a “waffler” whose favorite color was “plaid.”
By definition, the very willingness to seek the center and consider various opinions from thoughtful critics makes moderates particularly open to deliberation. But that introspection also encourages the flexibility, civility, creativity, and rationality that are the moderate’s hallmarks. The great British philosopher of liberty, John Stuart Mill, taught that polemics suppress dialogue, stigmatizing opponents as “bad and immoral men.” The only way to evaluate bold contrary opinions is “by studied moderation of language.”


On Sale
Jun 10, 2008
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Gil Troy

About the Author

A native of Queens, New York, Gil Troy is currently Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of several books, including Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. He comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Weekend.

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