MY FATHER is a very keen observer of contemporary politics and always an astute judge of the potential of political aspirants. His favorite phrase to describe someone with a very high ceiling in terms of achievement is “presidential timber.” He always uses this phrase to refer to somebody who he thought was of sufficient ability and gravitas, such that this person could eventually one day become president. So high was the bar for the presidential office, that whenever one was referred to as presidential timber, that was really something resembling the highest compliment one could ever hope to hear.
Referring to the Kennedy family – “The sons were expected to mature into presidential timber and were groomed for that starting with the oldest, Joseph Jr., a bomber pilot who died in World War Two.” (“Presidential timber?” by Robert Basler, Reuters blog, Aug. 27, 2009)
When you look up the phrase and what it means in contemporary usage, presidential timber means someone of the finest material to be able to assume the highest office of the land. Such description, as above, was accorded the Kennedy sons, for example, as all of them were thought to be of sufficient capability that they could become presidents in their own right. When dad spoke of Philippine politicians who were presidential timber, he would often be referring to great statesmen like the late senators Claro M. Recto, Arturo Tolentino, or Jose W. Diokno. These were men he considered to have been good enough so that they would be candidates to the highest office of the land.
When I studied the qualities of the men he was referring to, clearly one thing they had in common was they were all of brilliant intellect. And who could deny that the three statesmen above were of the highest caliber, in terms of their intellectual abilities? Apart from that, however, those he considered to be potential presidents were also exemplary in terms of their personal lives. This meant that they were not only brilliant and intelligent, they also had to be of the highest quality, be of strong moral fiber, and be generally beyond reproach in terms of their integrity. Anything less than this, and the person would no longer be worth considering as national leader-in-waiting.
I can’t help thinking, given what I am seeing today, just how low our standards have sunk in terms of the people we deem worthy of leading this nation, or any nation for that matter.
Just cast a look at the man that the United States considered worthy of being its commander-in-chief. Trump does not inspire anyone to lofty expectations. His communication skills are very limited, his intellectual prowess unproven at best, and his conduct arguably unworthy of emulation. Whenever he speaks, it sometimes seems like you are listening to someone who never expanded his vocabulary to more than one hundred words. And the way he has conducted himself has not been totally exemplary. Just previous to being elected president, for example, he was caught red-handed on record as being a totally despicable sexist and misogynist. And yet, none of these seemed to perturb voters, at least when it came to choosing him as their leader.
The oft-repeated excuse for those who preferred him to his rivals what that he was someone who was “true to himself.” He supposedly speaks his mind, minces no words, and converses in the language of the ordinary man. This is what endears him to his supporters. Which to me is precisely the problem. Quality timber is wood of the finest quality, fine enough to be turned into expensive and valuable furniture. Same must be said of those who are considered presidential aspirants – they must be the finest of men, who will make the best leaders. Otherwise, they would not pass my dad’s test, and he will not consider them presidential timber.
(Belated greetings to my father-in-law, Fernando Arguelles Jr., who celebrated his 80th birthday last week.)