In the age of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, “character is destiny” sermons are now frequent. Clearly, a president who is “not a crook” or a philanderer is preferable to the alternative.
But is that simple moral calculation sufficient when this one person can make the lives of 330 million at least somewhat better or worse?
During the recent spate of sexual harassment accusations, three questions might pertain to presidential character and confuse us.
One, to what degree does personal sin determine governance?
In other words, if John Kennedy was, as is now reported, utterly sexually reckless while in the White House, would his libido affect his judgement? Did his rash personal shortcomings erode his political behavior, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or while negotiating a test ban treaty?
Second, to what degree are sins universal, rather than defined by local cultures and the era in which occur?
If any contemporary president emulated Kennedy’s sexually predatory behavior while living in the White House, would he now likely have been impeached?
Third, do we judge politicians by their worst or best moments or a mixture of both?
Does one good deed cancel out one, two, three or more sins—if they are not mortal, or at least not all that mortal?
Can we excuse the now-revealed to be groping World War II veteran President George H.W. Bush (who may have groped a bit while president in 1992, and in 2003 when he allegedly groped an underage female)? Bush’s sins were nothing like those of Bill Clinton in a hotel room with a frightened and resisting Juanita Broderick. A photo-grope is not comparable to a drunken Ted Kennedy swimming for safety as a young woman, the victim of his felonious reckless driving, was left to drown.
For answers to these dilemmas, look to a few past presidents.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an effective wartime leader. He woke up in time to the threats in Europe and Japan. He began a mobilization that was already in progress by the time we were hit with the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
FDR also routinely lied, deceived, and covered up before the public, his political enemies of course, and his friends as well. He was a philanderer of sorts without apologies.
Had FDR or his doctors been truthful about his real medical condition in 1944, he either would not have been nominated or likely would not have been reelected to a fourth term.
During the 1932 election FDR seemed the antithesis of Herbert Hoover. Certainly, Hoover was a far better man, who perhaps was not as effective a commander in chief.
In today’s media climate, Harry Truman would never have been nominated, given that his long career was jumpstarted by the corrupt Kansas City Tom Prendergast machine (Truman: “He [Prendergast] was always my friend and I have always been his.”).
Yet thank Truman for the architecture of post-war containment. He saved Berlin and South Korea. Truman oversaw the birth of NATO and the Marshall Plan. He made tough wartime decisions, such as using the bomb and later keeping the Soviets out of Turkey and Greece.
It is likely that Truman’s 1948 opponent—the more honest, mob-busting former prosecutor and governor Thomas Dewey—was a more judicious professional. But it is far from clear that Dewey possessed the common sense, affinity for the American people, or decisiveness of a Truman in crises.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a successful president in the manner that he had been an effective Supreme Allied Commander. His administrative skills were unequaled. Ike was fair-minded. He was deferential without being weak, practical by intent rather than from being uniformed, and a consensus builder who got things done without the narcissism and egoism of most of his military and political rivals.
But under today’s workplace protocols, Ike would likely never have been nominated, given his poorly hidden relationship with his divorced chauffeur Kay Sommersby, while he held the title of Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
Our current media and political climate would have judged the careful Eisenhower reckless in his down time with Sommersby—while battle raged just miles away from his headquarters. Or the media would have contrasted his infidelity with his wife Mamie’s loyal support back home or with Kay’s fiancé soon to be killed in combat.
Was Eisenhower, then, a bad man, but a good president, or a good man and a good president who was mortal rather than divine? Was his apparent one-time dalliance (of uncertain dimensions) forgivable, (but witness the quite different fate of Gen. David Petraeus, whose own transgression may have been similar to Eisenhower’s, if certainly more discreet than Ike’s)—in a way that four or five Sommersby infidelities would not have been?
align=”left” Our current media and political climate would have judged the careful Eisenhower reckless in his down time with Sommersby—while battle raged just miles away from his headquarters. Or the media would have contrasted his infidelity with his wife Mamie’s loyal support back home or with Kay’s fiancé soon to be killed in combat.
Certainly, by today’s standards, Generals Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton and especially Admiral Ernest King would have been cashiered (or worse) for improper sexual relationships while in uniform.
John Kennedy’s sexual escapades perhaps trumped even Bill Clinton’s. They were raunchy, often callous. Would the loyal spouse Richard Nixon, then, have been the preferable president in 1961 because of his marital fidelity?
The presidency of Lyndon Johnson was largely a failure, given that he institutionalized ineffective big government, bequeathed a great society of unworkable and counterproductive entitlements, and fashioned a strategy in Vietnam that was doomed to failure. Others more liberal may disagree. But were Johnson’s policies, whether good or bad, affected by his serial womanizing? His personal fortune was built on what today would be called felonious quid pro quo selling of his political influence to the highest bidder. Did that past conflict of interest explain his disastrous conduct of the war?
Again, Nixon was no womanizer. He treated women with far more respect than did either Kennedy or Johnson. For all the talk that he was a crook, there is little evidence that Nixon ever conceived of politics in get-rich terms as did Johnson or the Clintons. Did his personal probity then ensure that Nixon was a truthful chief executive?
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were both emblematic of flyover state, rock-solid values. They stayed married, did not cash in while in their offices, and largely told the truth. Their administrations were mostly free of scandal. America benefitted from their personal probity.
Yet both were largely ineffective presidents. Few can point to any lasting legislative achievements, apart from airline deregulation, between 1974 and 1981. Ford’s sad “Whip Inflation Now” button campaign and Carter’s serial disasters (stagflation, the appeasement of Khomeinist Iran, the rudderless foreign policy) are not arguments that good character does not matter, only that it is not necessarily a guarantee of good governance.
Ronald Reagan was both a good person and a successful president. He, along with George H.W. Bush, are arguments that character can enhance a presidency. Neither, of course, were saints (Reagan could be intemperate and reckless in some of his public statements. Bush’s photo-groping likely was not just a post presidential symptom of age, but may have had precursors during his presidency).
The characters of Bush and Reagan now seem almost angelic in comparison to 99 percent of those who excel at politics. Yet if we point to Reagan’s character to explain his landmark presidency, Bush’s probity cannot be a guide to effective governance, given his “read my lips” one-term administration and often so-so agenda.
Little need be said of Bill Clinton. The general consensus holds, I think. He could be at times an effective president, at least in terms of finally balancing the budget, bridging hard right and hard left politics, and using force to discredit Milosevic who would eventually resign.
Yet Clinton was also the least principled president in a century—impeached, disbarred, chronically lying, possibly a sexual assaulter, sexually callous to the point of being pathological, and without any sense of financial probity. He is likely to be regarded as the most corrupt post-president of the last 100 years, even as pundits now nostalgically rewrite his presidency as one without the rancor and nihilism of 21st-century politics and an example of how to partner with Congress to halt deficits.
Clinton is certainly said to have been a better president than was Carter—and a far worse man.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama, despite the allegations of their political opponents, were good husbands and fathers. They were politically savvy and hardball brawlers. Neither was dishonest, at least in the manner of most politicians.
Given today’s political rancor, we do not know yet how historians will finally assess their presidencies, but each was unique in doubling the national debt. It can be said that no recent Republican president before Trump incurred such dislike from Democrats as did Bush, and no Democrat so alienated Republicans as did Obama.
In answer to our initial queries, it is (regrettably) not evident that personal sins equate to failed presidencies.
Immorality is certainly not to be encouraged, but in the Machiavellian landscape of global politics it does not preclude wise leadership either.
In military terms, the upright Omar Bradley and Courtney Hodges made lots of decisions that in retrospect got soldiers killed needlessly. The philandering and profane George S. Patton’s sobriety and genius on the battlefield saved thousands of lives—and might have saved even more had his excesses been contextualized rather than been grounds for ostracism in 1943-44.
align=”left” Immorality is certainly not to be encouraged, but in the Machiavellian landscape of global politics it does not preclude wise leadership either.
Second, values are absolute and transcend time and place. But the notion of public versus personal, and private sin versus public guilt changes constantly.
Had we applied our current intrusive moral litmus tests to past successful presidents, many of them would likely have been removed or indeed never been elected.
In the past, pragmatism guided us about sin and politicians: a man’s demons were his own unless they reached a point of impairing his public career or shaming his office in the eyes of the public.
Two nightly martinis at home were OK; four to five would inevitably become a matter of public concern.
Visiting a mistress was regrettable, cavorting in the Oval Office inexcusable. The former behavior was a matter of guilt to be judged by God, the latter was shameful and to be condemned by the living.
One of the great paradoxes of our age is that we have somehow managed to have become far more sanctimonious than previous generations—and far more immoral as well.
The subtext of this is essay is, of course, Donald J. Trump. His presidency is too brief to yet be judged; his personal foibles are too imbedded within current political hatred to be assessed dispassionately. Neither is it yet clear that Trump is a bad man or a good president or vice versa or neither.
But if the past is sometimes a guide to the present, Trump in theory certainly could become a more effective president than would have been his likely soberer and more judicious Republican rivals—which raises the question: when one man can change the lives of 330 million, what is presidential morality after all?
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