Presidential habits worth having

Published 4:19 pm Monday, February 16, 2015

While George Washington’s birthday was not declared an official holiday by Congress until Jan. 31, 1879, Americans have long taken time on his birthday to remember this great man and honor his life and legacy.

Today, although the federal government still officially calls the day “Washington’s Birthday,” many view the holiday more broadly as an opportunity to look back and remember all past American presidents, leading to it being popularly known as “Presidents’ Day.”

Each presidency carries with it a legacy — moments, both good and bad, that changed the trajectory of our nation and formed building blocks for future direction.

Email newsletter signup

We often remember our presidents by their biggest decisions, the ones you read about in history books or biographies. But many times it was their small decisions and daily dedications that had considerable impact on our nation.

Our nation would do well to heed these lessons on principles and daily habits from some of our nation’s greatest leaders.

Dwight Eisenhower: Choose character above all.

As a small boy, Dwight Eisenhower used the margins of his schoolbooks to scrawl notes about his teachers, rating them as “good” or “cross.” He continued this habit of writing character assessments into adulthood as he rated those he worked with in his military and political career.

For Eisenhower, virtue was everything — for himself and for those with whom he surrounded himself. According to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, this habit created one of his best contributions to our nation; historians consider his personnel decisions as among his greatest skills as a leader.

Even when he found himself in a position where partisanship is often rewarded over virtue, Eisenhower chose character above all.

Our first step in meeting the great challenges we face today is to remember the virtues of our nation and to surround ourselves with those who are also committed to those virtues.

Abraham Lincoln: Keep new ideas near.

Abraham Lincoln’s intellectual curiosity followed him everywhere he went. Not known for his organizational skills, Lincoln famously used scraps of paper to write down ideas as they came to him and tucked them away in his stovepipe top hat. He wanted to keep his ideas close, and he used those ideas to form speeches, cast vision and build important debates.

But out of these fragmented scraps of ideas came some of the most powerful ideas that changed the course of our nation. Lincoln’s discipline reminds us that even the smallest or rawest ideas can lead to important breakthroughs for our nation. We just have to keep the ideas coming.

George Washington: Maintain allegiance to the common good.

Heroic leadership is hard, but for George Washington it was his legacy. For Washington, leadership was not about himself. He was motivated by his public life, not for self-interest, but rather to serve the greater good. He famously refused to accept payment for his services as Commander-in-Chief during the Revolutionary War, because he knew the financial hardship our budding nation faced. He never took leave during the war.

He had an unyielding commitment to a government by the people. He was a statesman, not a politician. Our nation trusted Washington, because he had an allegiance to the common good.

Washington’s legacy reminds us of the heart and soul of our republic — freedom and a representative government — and how the preservation of that heritage rests on the shoulders of our leaders.

These are only a few stories from three of the 43 individuals who have led our great republic over the course of our 238-year history. I encourage you to consider how our presidents’ collected interests, experiences and unique traits have shaped our nation.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at