What Makes a Good President?
And does Jon Stewart have those traits?
Should Jon Stewart run for president? The head of a PR firm thinks so, and that was enough to summon a chatter storm on Twitter. The question calls to mind a scene from Game of Thrones Season 4, which was back when the show was a vivid meditation on power and inhumanity, and before it became the intellectual equivalent of two clowns lighting their farts on fire. Here’s the scene (with some pre and post-scene analysis that I couldn’t get around):
I basically agree with Tywin (and I also would cast Charles Dance in literally anything, up to and including the lead role in a Serena Williams biopic). Wisdom is what makes a good ruler. But — as he asks — “What is wisdom, hmm?” Let’s unpack that a bit.
When thinking about what makes a good president, it’s tempting to simply list a billion positive traits. After all: A president should be strong, and smart, and enlightened, and informed, and compassionate, and steadfast, and limber, and a good cook, and they should smell like cinnamon, and be able to dunk, and own a bunch of cool shit, and know a few card tricks, and honestly being good at kung fu wouldn’t hurt. I’m sure we can all agree on that. But I’m trying to identify a few key traits that should be considered essential.
So, in no particular order, here are the traits that I think a good president needs to have.
Knowledge. Being president isn’t like being a film noir gumshoe; you can’t get by on hunches and horse sense. You need to know stuff. You need a good working knowledge of history, law, philosophy, economics, and about a dozen other things. This is why I like the part of the Constitution that says you have to be 35 to be president; no-one can acquire the knowledge needed to be president in fewer than 35 years, even if they forgo the part of their youth that involves binge drinking and weird sex. Which nobody should.
Knowledge isn’t the same as intelligence. If you transported Isaac Newton to the present day, he’d be an awful president, because he doesn’t have well-considered opinions on things like the nuclear triad and renewable energy. He’d also probably spend most of this time cowering in a corner, terrified of all the cars and airplanes. A beautiful mind is great, but a beautiful mind that doesn’t possess relevant information is as useful as a Formula One car with a beehive under the hood.
It seems obvious to say “the president should know about president stuff,” but apparently it needs to be said. People are always calling for folks like Oprah or Duane “The Young Rock Tuesdays on NBC” Johnson to run for president, even though they show no signs of knowing a great deal about government (though both seem like nice people!). Dr. Oz is running for Senate, his main qualification being that he had a TV show that proved that he is a terrible doctor. Football great Herschel Walker is running for Senate despite perhaps knowing less than any person who has ever lived. I want my dentist to know about dentistry, I want my plumber to know about plumbing, and I similarly want my president to possess the knowledge he1 needs to do his job well.
The Romans didn’t know that lead pipes can poison people. The Crusaders didn’t know that the Middle East is hot. The French Revolutionaries didn’t know that if you keep printing money, inflation ensues. History is full of bad decisions caused by not knowing stuff. The more stuff the president knows, the better his decisions are likely to be.
Ethics. By ethics, I mean more than just “don’t be a Boris Johnson-esque ethical dumpster fire.” Though that’s part of what I mean. A president should be trustworthy, and should be smart enough not to trade his credibility for a few blowjobs, as Bill Clinton did. Clinton’s credibility was worth nothing less than six full fuck sessions and a birthday threesome, and the fact that he accepted less represents a major moral failing on his part.
But I mostly mean that a president should be willing to do what’s right, even when that’s difficult. If knowledge helps a president know which way we should go, ethics compels him to have the courage to lead us there. The easiest thing a leader can do is to figure out what people want and then give them that thing, no matter what it is. This craven impulse leads to things like pogroms, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a billion TV reboots that wouldn’t exist in a just society.
A government that does nothing but process people’s existing beliefs is a government that has abandoned the idea of promoting progress. There should be times when the government does Thing X even though Thing X is unpopular. Unpopular actions come at a cost to the president almost by definition, and a good president needs to be willing to bear that cost. A person who just goes with the flow at all times and gives people what they want no matter what should become a wedding DJ. The presidency is for people who know how to stand firm.
Leadership. I want the president to be ethical, but I don’t want him to be politically suicidal. This trait acknowledges that knowing what’s right and pursuing what’s right aren’t enough; you have to be able to get people to follow you.
This is where many of the traits that people associate with a presidency come into play. A few paragraphs up, I sneered at calls for athletes and other celebrities to turn to politics, but it certainly doesn’t hurt for a president to be a popular person. The most enlightened agenda in the world is useless without the right messenger. So, a president has to be likable; he should be suave and personable and maybe have a great biography and also have the patience to not make the “wrap it up” gesture when a citizen starts to ramble during a town hall.
Leadership also includes strategy. I want the president to always pursue what’s right, except for sometimes. You have to be practical. I think that gay rights are important, but Lincoln’s 1860 campaign would have been the wrong time to push that issue. A leader sees the whole board, plays his cards right, keeps an ace up his sleeve, and adheres to other game-based metaphors that connotate good judgment.
This is all necessary in a democracy. The benign dictator model doesn’t work; after all, a dictator is still a dictator, and not everyone will agree that they’re benign. A sullen misanthrope shouting about technocratic solutions (hello!) will end up like a marching band leader whose band went down a different street. A leader can affect positive change by accumulating political capital and then spending that capital wisely.
A Rawlsian perspective. I’m sorry for being confusing here; after all, John Rawls — much like Duffman — says a lot of things. A simpler way to put this would be that the president should be a president for all Americans.
So, why am I referencing Rawls? Well, mostly to be a pretentious dick (being high-falutin makes people less likely to question me!), but also because I think “president for all Americans” doesn’t quite capture it. “President for all Americans” sounds like a president could maybe check this box by saluting the flag at the Olympics, putting Kwanzaa candles on the White House lawn in December, and Tweeting out a fireworks GIF on Chinese New Year. But a president should do more than just represent us; he should see things from our perspective.
Rawls’ famous thought experiment is the “veil of ignorance”. If you weren’t too stoned to function during Philosophy 101, you might recall that this is the exercise where you’re supposed to imagine yourself as a person waiting to be born. Proto-you — who is you as an adult, not you as a fetus, because in that case you’d just be focusing on developing hair and eyeballs — doesn’t know who in the world you will be. You could be a London banker or a Mongolian farmer or that guy who plays guitar on roller skates at Venice Beach. It’s from that perspective that you’re supposed to ask: “What system would I want to live in? What should the rules be — what’s fair?”
I want the president to see things from that perspective. He needs to be able to understand and synthesize competing interests in an attempt to approximate fairness. I don't expect him to achieve absolute justice — none of us have enough brain power or a broad enough vantage point to know what that looks like — but I expect him to try.
This is the trait that keeps a president from being, you know…evil. A person with the first three traits but not the fourth could deftly and efficiently inflict mass carnage; we would all be very impressed with his acumen as he gutted us and tossed our corpses into a flaming pit. But a president with a Rawlsian perspective knows that most people oppose flaming-pit-corpse-tossing. This trait is basically a requirement that the president have a universalist perspective that grants us all equal worth and dignity.
To put all this wankery together: Knowledge is the capacity to know where we should go. Ethics is the will to try to take us there. Leadership is the ability to take us there. And a Rawlsian perspective ensures that “there” is a place we want to go.
So, does Jon Stewart possess these traits? If you had asked me this question in 2010, I would have been tempted to say “yes”. I’m on record about how much I loved Stewart’s version of The Daily Show. He was a major influence on me, and I think it’s fair to say that he was a leading voice in American liberalism for more than a decade.
But I’ve seen Stewart’s Apple TV show,2 and my opinion is now “No, he should definitely not be president.” In my opinion, Stewart’s show is sloppy, cheap, and — to cut right to the chase — really fucking stupid. He’s become a person who nods along credulously to Modern Monetary Theory nonsense and needs to have Janet Yellen explain basic economics to him. I’d say that Stewart lacks knowledge and ethics.
I thought that perhaps the “hey, wouldn’t it be wacky if this guy ran for president” impulse might have been purged from American politics after Donald Trump. Apparently not. It’s probably true that some people want Stewart to run against Tucker Carlson just to see if Stewart will call Carlson a “dick” on television again. I humbly suggest that we all grow the fuck up. The presidency doesn’t exist for our amusement; people who think that any clown can do the job should think a bit harder about what the presidency entails. They should think at least as hard as King Tommen was forced to do in that Game of Thrones clip. Because the answer to question “What is wisdom?” is not very simple at all.
For reasons that I’ll probably unpack in a future post, I hate choosing gender pronouns for people who don’t exist. So here’s what I did: I flipped a coin. If it was tails, I would have referred to my hypothetical president as “she/her” throughout the article, but it was heads, so I went with “he/him”.
Full disclosure: I was briefly in the mix for a role on The Problem with Jon Stewart.