The Realist-Idealist Dilemma

Is President Bush a man of principle or pragmatism? So far, he has vacillated between the two. But leaders can’t have it both ways.

President George W. Bush
Eulogy for Ronald Reagan

June 11, 2004

In an unexpected way, it may have been the most telling speech of George W. Bush’s presidency — less for what he said than for how his words reflected on himself.


“Ronald Reagan matched an optimistic temperament with bold, persistent action. [He] was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the reward and spirit of enterprise. He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the strength that that mission required. He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted, and he acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened.”

The president, of course, was mourning the passing of Reagan, his political and philosophical idol. Even with the embellishment such occasions demand, Bush’s interpretation was essentially correct: Reagan was a leader whose actions followed consistently from a positive worldview. Politics and policies aside, that consistency was what made him an effective and, to many, a respected leader.

Could Bush say the same of himself? Granted, evaluating the quality of his leadership at this stage in his uncompleted presidency is risky. But we know this: The president has an implementation problem. It is a problem defined in part by a lack of moral courage, by an apparent unwillingness to commit, as Reagan did, to a consistent vision. Lacking such courage, he has lost trust.

Bush has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism. Realists believe that most people are evil and, therefore, do whatever it takes to maintain power and protect the interests of their nations or organizations. Faced with a crisis, they respond depending on how they read the situation. In contrast, idealists, like Reagan, believe that most people are good and that the world can be made a better place if leaders adhere to inviolable values. In crises, idealists stick with principles.

The difference is not a matter of politics. Henry Kissinger advised Richard Nixon, for example, that idealism was to blame for America’s troubles in Vietnam: A realist to the bone, he argued that Americans should have stayed out of Vietnam because we had no political or economic interests in the region. Yet Margaret Thatcher, though likewise a conservative, rejected such value-free realpolitik: A leader, she said, must constantly change strategies, tactics, and policies to meet contingencies, but nevah compromise principles. To her, freedom was a value worth fighting for at all times.

Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once. And that cuts to the heart of Bush’s problem. In the international arena, he first offered realist arguments for invading Iraq (the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction), then switched to idealist motivations (bringing democracy to the Mideast). Domestically, he pushed the idealist notion that taxes should be reduced to shrink government — but later suggested, realistically, that a tax cut would act as an antirecession stimulus.


Such waffling has undercut the level of trust in Bush’s administration, even within his own party. Which is why Forty-three must choose one philosophy of leadership or the other — or risk not just reelection but the trust of those who follow him.

It may make most sense for Bush to embrace realism. As much as he identifies with the idealist Reagan, it was the authenticity of GW’s realist arguments against nation building and social engineering that helped him prevail in his first presidential campaign. As an MBA, Bush is probably more comfortable with realism, the dominant approach among corporate executives. Tough-minded realists such as Jack Welch and Scott McNealy are effective leaders because there’s no illusion as to where they stand: Corporate realists make no pretense about having “higher” principles that might interfere with their doing “whatever it takes” to serve the interests of shareholders.

In fact, in both business and politics, idealism has proven the tougher path. Only a few leaders — Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela — have been able to stick to a high moral principle, much less identify one worthy of adherence. Too many idealists turn out to be tyrants like Stalin and Mao, rigidly committed to immoral ends. True idealism, like Reagan’s, requires habits of character formed over a lifetime, often in the crucible of challenging events.

The leadership lesson for GW — and for any leader — is simple: Followers don’t much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconstancy. To make a mark in history, as Reagan did, Bush must decide which one he is. Doing so will require moral courage, because it entails commitment to a predictable mode of behavior. And that, ultimately, is what followers seek in their leaders. As Bush said: “Ronald Reagan believed . . . in the courage and triumph of free men. And we believe it, all the more, because we saw that courage in him.”

James O’Toole is research professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations and author of Leading Change (Jossey-Bass, 1995). He served in the Nixon administration as assistant to the secretary of health, education, and welfare.