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The test of a president

A commander in chief who wants to be a leader must first be a teacher.

February 17, 2008|Susan Jacoby | Susan Jacoby is the author of "The Age of American Unreason."

Who will be ready for the presidency on Day One? Who is best qualified to be commander in chief? Who is tough enough, charismatic enough and competent enough to do the job?

These are all important questions, of course, but they ignore a crucial element of presidential leadership -- the ability to educate the public about the preeminent issues of the day.

Our greatest presidents, in the judgment of historians and in popular memory -- including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- would never have succeeded as commanders in chief had they not first succeeded as teachers in chief. And two of the most conspicuous presidential failures in recent history -- Bill Clinton's healthcare reform plan and George W. Bush's open-ended war in Iraq -- can be traced, in part, to the inability or unwillingness of both men to educate the public about complex, long-term issues.

The duty of the president as public educator is not only more important than ever but, paradoxically, more difficult to carry out today than it was at a time when the attention of Americans was not fragmented by continuous access to infotainment. No 21st century president can count on what Roosevelt could -- an audience of at least three-quarters of the American public every time he took to the radio for one of his "fireside chats." And none of the 2008 presidential candidates is equipped with the experience of educating the public that Lincoln acquired during the famous debates he conducted about slavery with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign.

Lincoln's debates (he lost the senatorial battle to Douglas) prefigured all of the major issues of the 1860 presidential campaign and the Civil War. Each of the seven debates lasted more than three hours and was attended not only by Illinois residents but by thousands of voters from neighboring states. Needless to say, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which each man spoke directly and at length to the other's arguments, bore no resemblance to our modern choreographed-for-television pseudo-debates, in which candidates are often forbidden to speak to each other directly and rarely give more than 90-second answers to questions. After the Lincoln-Douglas debates, millions of Americans eventually read the full text in their local newspapers or in a collection edited by Lincoln himself.

One result of Lincoln's debate experience was his heightened awareness of the controversial nature of immediate emancipation -- even in the North. His delay in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until September 1862 may well have bought him time to convince a significant number of ambivalent Northerners that the war must free slaves as well as preserve the Union.

Roosevelt faced an equally formidable task of public education when the Nazis stormed into Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. At the time, an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed any U.S. involvement in the European conflict. FDR began his efforts with a fireside chat two days after the invasion.

Sixteen months later, with most of his countrymen still opposed to entering the war, Roosevelt delivered what was arguably his most powerful educational message. On Dec. 29, 1940, in what would become known as the "arsenal of democracy" speech, the president launched a successful campaign for lend-lease military aid to Britain.

FDR did not say, "I'm the decider." Instead, he offered Americans information about the world and persuaded them of the need to chart a different course. Given that Congress renewed the Selective Service Act by only a one-vote margin in the summer of 1941, it is sobering to reflect on how unprepared the U.S. would have been when it was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, had Roosevelt said and done nothing to bring the international peril home to his fellow citizens during the preceding two years.

It is beside the point that today's voters could, if they wished, peruse much longer texts than the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the Web -- or that they could follow the course of a foreign war on a Google-enhanced map. The reality is that when we read online, most of us are trolling for quickie chunks of information. The same is true when we watch the news on TV. So it is not surprising that our presidents have fallen into the habit of appearing occasionally, and relatively briefly, to announce faits accomplis without taking the trouble to make their case over a period of months, much less years, to their fellow citizens.

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