On Wednesday night Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke at the same prime-time television event for the first time. The “forum” was not a debate; the candidates appeared back-to-back, answering Matt Lauer’s questions about their qualities and qualifications to be commander-in-chief. He let Clinton—who appeared first—speak without disruption, but repeatedly interrupted Trump. On the other hand, he devoted a good third of Clinton’s segment to the thorny issue of her emails and personal server. In my ad hoc summary of noteworthy moments I have tried to keep my own views (well known to our readers) separate from the analysis.Share
According to Hillary Clinton, the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess is steadiness: “An absolute rock steadiness, and mixed with strength to be able to make the hard decisions . . . And when you’re sitting in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions . . . what you want in a president, a commander-in-chief, is someone who listens, who evaluates what is being told . . . who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented.”
Comment: Clinton unsurprisingly omitted honesty and trustworthiness—or the perception thereof (“honest Abe”)—which a commander-in-chief needs in order to gain the trust and personal commitment of those he commands. This is the key to effective leadership, which is the essence of command. For all his geopolitical acumen and intelligence, in this respect Richard Nixon was fatally flawed. The issue of personal character and integrity—which plagued her husband’s second term—has been, and remains, a major liability for Mrs. Clinton.
In terms of decision-making effectiveness, it is critical that a president “who listens, who evaluates what is being told . . . who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented” has a team of advisors who are able and willing to present analysis and policy options which are at variance with the commander-in-chief’s temperament and perceived or stated preferences. Harry Truman was not an instinctive cold warrior, but he was receptive to the ideas of Dean Acheson and George Kennan—independent lucid thinkers—in devising the containment strategy in 1947 which eventually bore his name. JFK did well during the Cuban missile crisis because his EXCOMM was composed of individuals unencumbered by the need to pander to his likely preferences. In short, an effective president needs to possess good negotiating skills, to be flexible, to prioritize objectives (and be willing to forgo one to achieve another), and to be able to change his mind when presented with cogent argument. (Read more.)