Becoming Presidential

For some this Monday is still part of the weekend. Here in the United States we pause to observe what is commonly called “President’s Day”.  Though that’s not the legal name of this federally recognized holiday. 

Did you know when Congress consolidated the number of observances and moved them to specific Mondays within a given month, the day was actually recorded as “Washington’s Birthday”?

It is. Yet many will also note the observance of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, though technically the elected did away with the day dedicated to him. Plus I fear even more people are now believing the actual purpose of the day is to allow influencers to manipulate you into buying overpriced mattresses

Anyway to me it seems a fitting time to examine this word of “presidential”, what it means, how a very reluctant leader as well as a man who was never expected to amount to anything shaped it plus how their stories can help define ours. That’s the focus on this edition of “Becoming Today”.

So what does it mean to be presidential? You know just looking it up in a dictionary doesn’t really allow us to delve into the concept. 

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find:

“relating to a president or presidency.”

“of or relating to a president or presidency.”

“of the nature of a president.”

Okay so three sources and we learn, presidential has something to do with a president. Though none offer any insight as to exactly what. 

So if we keep digging a little deeper, we can find this explanation:

“having a bearing or demeanor befitting a president; dignified and confident”.

That’s a little better. At least we can now surmise that being presidential relates to having an attitude and acting in ways that involve dignity and confidence.

Now the Urban Dictionary offers the most possible explanations and the most detailed, though some I wish I’d never read. However I did come across this insight though:

“The highest or greatest state of being or effect of an object or substance.

Presidential is used when an object or substance is perfect in that it

accomplishes the maximum effect that it was created to do”. 

Then being presidential combines dignity, confidence and higher standards with an expectation of positive performance. Hmm.. I think we’re getting closer. 

Still though I think we are lacking something. So let’s also consider this explanation offered by journalist and longtime White House correspondent John Dickerson, who wrote:

“What does it mean to be presidential? Basically, to act in keeping with our highest expectations of the office. “Moral nature is a part of our humanity and people crave the maintenance of principles that have ensured order and prosperity,” wrote the conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson about our modern public life”. 

He also noted, “A president’s power to console comes from a ceremonial reverence Americans grant their presidents. To deserve the reverence, a president must act as steward of the dignity and stature of the office. In short, a president must be presidential”.

So to lead includes the need to be able to console, to empathize, to have compassion for, to aid, support and reassure others.

Now I think we can draft our shared understanding of what it means to be presidential:

“To lead governed by the inherent understanding and acceptance that 

all are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. 

To steward others in good times and bad, instilling confidence in equality and justice, thereby fostering an attitude of growth and potential for all”.

Choosing to adopt this common understanding of what ‘Becoming Presidential’ entails, then together we can explore how this has worked historically and why we need to be reminded of that now.

Most referred to as the father of our nation, George Washington did not want to become President. In fact as he prepared to take office he wrote:

My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution.

This was not an isolated thought either. In another letter he shared with a personal friend that, in accepting the leadership role, he was giving up “all expectations of private happiness in this world”.

So while he felt like a ‘dead man walking’, his peers viewed him as someone anointed by God to be “the savior and father” of the country. 

Two very different opinions and it seems Washington’s fears were rooted in self doubt and not from any widespread perception or talk that he was not properly prepared for the task. 

Historians note what they call reasons expressed by the reluctant President, that I think really were more in line with excuses, as he struggled with his own emotions to balance weaknesses of flesh with the strength of spirit he no doubt was blessed with.

Those strengths were apparent in his military campaigns as well as the task he was so leary of. After all, Washington himself would have to define what being presidential would be becoming. Since he had no predecessor  George could not lie when it came to the fear he felt in having to establish the conducts, responsibilities and roles that generations of leaders would be expected to emulate and improve upon.

Among the reasons he gave for not wanting serve, according to the historians at Mount Vernon were:

1. Old age

2. Washington’s “encreasing fondness for agricultural amusements”

3. “My growing love of retirement”

4. Belief that the Anti-Federalists may oppose his selection

5. After having already retired in 1783, Washington feared he would be looked upon as inconsistent, rash, and ambitious if he returned to office

6. Belief that “some other person…could execute all the duties full as satisfactorily as myself.”

Again proof that in his humanness, Washington dealt with struggles not unlike our own. He doubted his abilities, questioned his strengths and was fearful to step outside his desired comfort zone. Yet he did surrender to his calling and in formally accepting this new path he wrote of recognizing the need “to obey the important and flattering call of my Country,…

In doing so 234 years ago this month, on February 4, 1789, the then 69 members of the Electoral College certified Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected.   

As many of our nation’s founding documents allude to, beliefs, character and values would be fundamental in our lives. While Washington was vocal on the idea of religious freedom, for all faiths and all people, he kept his own theology private. Though we know he identified as Latitudinarian,  a movement in the 18th Century Anglican faith, he was also known to worship with Episcopal, Presbyterian, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Dutch Reformed congregations.

Perhaps summing up his vision of the future of religious freedoms in our nation, while addressing the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, on August 18, 1790, Washington noted:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens“.

Nothing about giving favor to any group over another, in Washington’s ‘Becoming Presidential’ he clearly stated that bigotry and persecution would not be tolerated and those who could display good character regardless of their individual differences would be protected under the letter and spirit of the law.

Points he reiterated many times in speech and writing including this sentence from a letter to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1789:

“..all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences…”

As I alluded to in our shared definition of what it means to be presidential, conscience would become a major factor, including “instilling confidence in equality and justice, thereby fostering an attitude of growth and potential for all’.

Still in less than a mere four score and seven years to come, another surprising leader would be forced to deal with multiple questions of conscience, faith and values.

Abraham Lincoln was also someone who had to formulate his own definition for ‘Becoming Presidential’. His very election reshaped the nation with seven states seceding from  the Union before he could be sworn in to office. 

It would seem to be yet another in a long line of what were perceived as failures in his life. Lincoln’s younger days were full of trial, error and learning how to overcome failure as well as self-doubt. He went to war as a captain and returned as a private.

Then he failed as a businessman. As a lawyer he was considered too impractical and temperamental to be a success.

He then decided to get involved in politics. Suffering defeat in his first try for the legislature, lost in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress, was turned down when he applied to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, failed in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and also lost in the senatorial election of 1858.

Around that time, Honest Abe wrote to a friend, saying,  “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth”.

However two years later he was the first Republican ever elected President of the United States and helped heal the wounds of a divided nation. Without Lincoln realizing failure was an option none of us might be where we are today; which is Becoming who and what we always were intended to be.

His perseverance reminds us all to keep on trying. Never give up. Do not lose hope and never dwell on failure or mistakes. Forgive yourself and redirect your momentum forward and upward. That is the essence of our shared journey here on “Becoming Today”. 

Lincoln drew upon his faith and core values as he remained steadfast and determined to reunite the country and heal the wounds of civil war. 

His famous words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, can be directly tied to another time and place in history. 

Something we were warned about centuries before Lincoln’s time when as relayed in the Bible in Matthew, 12:25. The King James Version reports, “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”

One of the numerous ways Lincoln showed empathy and compassion in a dignified manner of leadership was with the establishment of what was then called “Decoration Day”.

The idea was to continue healing a nation that had seen far too much violence.

Families destroyed, young people lost and fears that the nation was more divided than ever before led some veterans to want to expand the concepts that had taken place in limited locations in the three years since the end of a conflict that led to a President being assassinated for his leadership. A man who had publicly hoped we would not see those who had perished had died in vain.

Therefore, to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the “late rebellion”, mourners honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers.

It seems like so little an individual sacrifice to make for those who gave their lives for the ideals of a revolutionary concept, which our forefathers who created it knew would be difficult to maintain.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln in dedicating a cemetery for those killed in service to those ideas, spoke about the challenges ahead and the need to remember the sacrifices along the way:

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

A mere 512 days later Lincoln himself perished, the result of a violent attack. 

By his actions Lincoln taught us all that we can only prosper by living in harmony. Differences must be set aside. Acceptance of each other as separate but equal individuals is required to empower an atmosphere of healing, growth and “Becoming Today”.

Now I’ll add an unexpected turn in our conversation.

As I was editing this, breaking news came about another former President who chose conscience and values to guide not only his brief time in office, but his entire life. 

Blessed with the longest life of any U.S. President, at 98-years-old we learn that Jimmy Carter is preparing to take the next fork in his own path.

According to an official statement from his foundation, after a series of short hospital stays, he chose to “spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”

As the Associated Press reported, “Carter served a single, tumultuous term and was defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, a landslide loss that ultimately paved the way for his decades of global advocacy for democracy, public health and human rights via The Carter Center.”

His work there resulted in a 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and untold lives touched.

Carter brought his character,  dignity and values to the White House as he helped a nation still recovering from the VietNam War, Watergate, the resignation of President Richard Nixon, record inflation, a gas crisis and numerous international conflicts.

Always a voice of reason and moderation, perhaps for me his greatest testament to his integrity and values was a single sentence which he offered without hesitation to an unusual question.

Now this was decades before future Presidents would attempt to alter our perception of what acceptable behavior was. One by redefining what sexual relations may or may not involve and another allegedly paying off a mistress and a porn star for their silence.

Yet in 1976, Carter admitted to having sinned by lusting in his heart, telling Playboy Magazine, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.

Honesty that was mocked by many at the time, but should be celebrated today. It indeed shows Carter knew how to be ‘Becoming Presidential’.

While I really don’t care if you take time today to buy a new mattress or not, I do hope you’ll take some time to rest and reflect upon the examples we’ve shared. 

No matter who you are, you are in some way called to lead.

Whether it’s in your family, organization, or profession you have the opportunity to step up and be presidential.

To be an example of character and values for others, whether it be with the honesty of Carter, the empathy of Lincoln or the vision of Washington you too can make a difference.

As I wrote earlier ‘Becoming Presidential’ can be defined as :

“To lead governed by the inherent understanding and acceptance that 

all are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. 

To steward others in good times and bad, instilling confidence in equality and justice, thereby fostering an attitude of growth and potential for all”.

Choose to do so and not only can you experience joy and success in your life, but you can also delight in it in the lives of others. 

Tomorrow I’ll unveil a new concept that I’ll be sharing with you in real time over the following 40-days. Some may have heard of the idea, for me it will be the first time I’ll attempt to undertake the practice. Join us tomorrow for all the details on our next edition of “Becoming Today”. 


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