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Q: What Makes For Great Presidents?

Massachusetts School Of Law At Andover

Q: What Makes For Great Presidents?

A: Strong Mothers, Height, Talent For Drama, Overcoming Adversity

By Sherwood Ross

Having a strong mother and a flair for self-dramatization, a talent for overcoming personal adversity, and standing a head taller than those around you, are among the personal characteristics of our greatest presidents, a prominent historian says.

It doesn’t hurt, either, to have prior government experience before entering the White House, to know how to make deals once you arrive, and to be perceived as presidential in order to help get your agenda off to a quick start, says Tim Blessing, professor of history at Alvernia College of Reading, Pa., an authority on presidential ratings and rankings.

And as for being “uniters,” great presidents “are really super partisans” that divide the country and then win their opponents over to their viewpoint and forge a new coalition that includes them, as President Reagan’s did with “Reagan Democrats,” Blessing says.

Based on his own studies and after surveying the research of more than 250 prominent historians, Blessing says the fathers of great presidents have died young and that they were raised by mothers with “immense influence” over them, “for better or for worse.”

Andrew Jackson’s father died before he was born and George Washington’s father died when he was ll years old, he noted. “And they (great presidents) are raised almost invariably very strong female figures,” such as Mary Ball Washington, Jane Randolph Jefferson, Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, and Sara Delano Roosevelt.

And back in the 18th Century when the average male height was around 5’ 7” or 5’8”, Jackson stood 6’, Jefferson was 6’1”, and Washington was 6’2”, Blessing noted. “So just being around them you would have been conscious of being around people who were above you.”

The greatest presidents all learned “you don’t always get what you want,” Blessing continued. “There have been enormous disappointments in these people’s lives,” such as when Teddy Roosevelt lost his mother and wife on the same day, and FDR was stricken with polio. “Almost every one of these (great) presidents has a moment when they’re really tested and they emerge on the other side better people.”

Blessing made his observations on the presidency in a talk at a conference on “Presidential Powers in America,” at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover April 26th.

He went on to say, “Seven of the nine leading presidents had extensive experience at different levels of government” and “a number of them have experience at all three levels of government. I know people say that experience may not matter when it comes to the presidency but if you’re going to be a leading president experience does matter.”

So does self-dramatization. “It is absolutely important for people to grasp, for these leading presidents, holding the presidency is performance art,” Blessing said. He recalled the image of President Jackson, “whether it’s riding a horse or wearing the cloak, Jackson is Jackson, and he was very good, he knew how to perform and he knew how to convey images.”

Some great presidents, Blessing continued---Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore (the Rough Rider) Roosevelt, and Reagan, being a movie star, were already iconic before they were elected. “They already had images before they came to office,” as contrasted, say, to Bill Clinton, who had “no real good image …before he gets there.” Lincoln was the only one of the great presidents who did not have “a pre-presidential image which is already beginning to approach the iconic,” Blessing said.

Like President Reagan, Blessing continued, great presidents act quickly “and get things done immediately before they lose momentum” once they take office. “Most of these presidents have…a sense of what it is they’ve got to do, how to take over.”

And they achieve their ends by knowing how to make deals. “Washington was supposedly not that much involved in terms of making the actual deals but he understood that you had to compromise,” Blessing said.

He identified eight “transformative”presidents as Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Reagan. Of this last, Blessing said, “You may not like Ronald Reagan, you may not think highly of Ronald Reagan, but Ronald Reagan is a fact of life in American politics. No such iconic reference as ‘Reagan Democrats’ exists for Carter, for the senior Bush or for Clinton.”

“And I think that says something about how we choose, or what we think of in terms of who is a leading president,” Blessing said. “Some kind of iconic reference develops… (an) iconic narrative begins to develop for these presidents.”

The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover is purposefully dedicated to the education of minorities, immigrants, and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that otherwise would be unable to attend law school and enter the legal profession.


(Further Information or to order a set of the conference proceedings, contact: Jeff Demers, Massachusetts School of Law,, ( 978-681-0800) or Sherwood Ross, who is a media consultant to MSL, at

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