When Presidential Character Once Mattered

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Here’s why I did not vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan—despite their records.

1944: Sorry, I am not voting for a fourth term for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He’s a vindictive character and has brought disrepute into the White House. When he didn’t get his way, he pouted and tried to pack the Supreme Court. When critics went after him, he threatened them with targeted regulations and taxes to silence them. He signed the order putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps—another one of his “executive orders” that he so often has abused.

Then there are those rumors. Have we ever had a president who used his own daughter as a conduit to conduct an affair while in the White House? And who knows what Eleanor was doing at the time? Why hide the truth about his health? Anybody who sees or hears the president, knows his army of conspiratorial aides are lying about his ailments as they always do. We’ve known all along that he was paralyzed—and not simply partially disabled, when his braces and aides staged his standing up to make us believe he could almost walk.

The president is now wasting away. Rumors are that his blood pressure is dangerously high and won’t go down. It’s Woodrow Wilson all over again, when they lied that his stroke was never serious, even as the guy was near comatose as his wife ran the country. FDR’s advisors know that he won’t make it six months if elected a fourth time. (What president before has even run for a third term?) They are hiding that fact to make sure the Democrats keep control of the presidency once he dies in office. There should be a constitutional amendment or something to remove an incapacitated president.

I cannot vote for a candidate who flat out deceives the American people. Character is destiny, and without it policy means nothing. Storming Normandy was a brilliant success, but it should not come at cost of endorsing an adulterous president. Even if FDR is leading us to global victory, his record is stained by his mendacity.

1951: If Harry Truman runs again for a second full-term—that would make almost another 12 years of one-party governance—I would not vote for him.

Why? Try his character. Truman entered the Senate from the corrupt Kansas City political machine. For good reason, he was branded “the Senator from Pendergast.” Truman has never disavowed those mob machine ties—and never been investigated for his part in mainstreaming Missouri’s endemic corruption. The guy failed in almost every business endeavor he tried until Tom Pendergast found a job for him. As president, he’s been both petty and profane, using salty language and stooping so low as president to threaten bodily harm to a critic of his daughter’s singing career.  He drank with cronies and wasted precious time playing poker. Truman couldn’t even make it through a semester in business college—and it showed.

The bull-headed, go-it-alone grifter Truman has never listened to his far better experienced and educated advisors. He knew nothing of the Manhattan Project but soon just dropped two atomic bombs on Japan without a scintilla of doubt. Sober and judicious pros in the State Department like Alger Hiss warned him of ginning up a Cold War and adopting a polarizing “containment” policy against our former wartime ally Joseph Stalin. Truman ignored him. And who exactly lost China?

Again, Truman never listened to expert diplomats and generals, who also advised against sending troops into the Korean quagmire, or recognizing Israel, or integrating the armed forces, or establishing the CIA, or firing hero General Douglas MacArthur, and on and on. Just a bully whose motto really wasn’t “the buck stops here” but “my way or the highway.” I suppose he did a few good things, but they’re canceled out by his uncouth and unpresidential comportment.

1956: I just cannot vote to reelect Dwight Eisenhower—even if that gives us left-wing Adlai Stevenson. We never really have addressed Ike’s character flaws. While he was supreme commander of our forces in Western Europe he seems to have conducted a veritable affair with his chauffeur Kay Summersby, whose fiancé was killed on the front lines. She even visited the country for months when Ike was thinking of running for president—to his embarrassment. For me, Ike’s dalliance cancels out D-Day and all that.

When Ike wrote his best-selling memoir, he concocted a ploy to declare his huge royalties as capital gains, not income—to avoid the sort of taxes we all pay. Even salty Truman didn’t do that.

When icon George Marshall was attacked by the McCarthy crazies, the trimmer Ike kept silent—with his finger in the air to measure the political winds. So, he let his former boss and patron be slandered.

Ike ran against Truman’s war, but when he got elected, he more or less did the same thing as Truman. Not a lot of character there. Which is more important, being right about the go-ahead order for the June 6 invasion or being wrong in cheating on your wife?

I think the better strategy for 1956 is “NeverEisenhower,” and just hope Stevenson wins. That way, the Democrats will go so hard left-wing that they will turn off the country. Their extremism will allow us time to rebuild the Republican Party and get ready for 1960 with known establishmentarians and good party men like Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.—or at least a guy who has held one office before thinking he could become president.

1963: I absolutely will not vote next year to reelect John F. Kennedy. He had no experience in foreign affairs and was surrounded by the worst and the stupidest who have all but gotten us into a Vietnam war. That bunch sure failed with the Bay of Pigs disaster and the near nuclear war over Cuba, mostly macho posturing after being humiliated in Vienna by Nikita Khrushchev. None of the media has ever investigated the Kennedy shady deals that his dad made to harvest votes in Chicago and steal Illinois to win the 1960 election. Can’t there be a lawsuit to challenge the voting machines in Chicago? Or maybe the Illinois electors could at least not have voted for Kennedy in the Electoral College?

But my big concern are those rumors that the guy is completely out of control in the White House—bedding young staffers, hooking up with starlets like Marilyn Monroe, orgies in the presidential pool, and generally leading a wastrel’s life while president. He could be blackmailed. Kennedy relies on nepotism, picking his own brother as Attorney General and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to run the Peace Corps, and consulting with Bobby and Teddy on every decision as if they were qualified for much of anything. Can’t we ban a president’s family from serving in his administration?

Then there is his health. Every time we wonder whether he is really sick, we are told only that he’s “tan and fit” as if heat lamps, painkillers and cortisone shots can hide his illnesses. So, my big problem with JFK is that we have a growing suspicion that the image of our president has nothing to do with the reality. The last thing we need is a billionaire wheeler-dealer family syndicate that got rich bootlegging during Prohibition to be running the country, with its money-making schemes everywhere. Isn’t there an Emoluments Clause or something?

1968: Whatever he says, I hope Lyndon Johnson does not run again for president. I certainly won’t vote for him. He was always a crook dating back to his “Landslide Johnson” fraud to win his Texas Senate seat. He created that even bigger fraud Bobby Baker. And the idea that his crony and compromised judge Abe Fortas was on the court and then was even nominated to be chief justice was a travesty.

The stories emanating from the White House are gross and unbelievable. He uses the n-word to staffers routinely. He conducts business while on the toilet. He passes wind and, they say, picks up puppies by the ears. He puts his hands all over women. They even say he pulls down his pants and exposes himself to staffers. Isn’t that a felony? He is an inveterate womanizer. We need a special prosecutor to see whether the guy is certifiable.

And how exactly did a lifelong politician become a Texas multimillionaire? No one has ever questioned the long history of LBJ’s shady quid pro quo deals that made Johnson rich while in public service. No wonder we’ve got out of control spending, the “Great Society,” and the disastrous escalation in Vietnam. I’m for his Civil Rights Act and all that, but would vote against it, if creepy Johnson had his finger prints on the bill.

1984: I am certainly not going to vote to reelect Ronald Reagan and his know-nothing populism that I thought we had buried with looney Goldwater in 1964. Reagan is just another disrupter, a barn burner. In 1968, after only two years as a governor, the former B-movie actor stormed the Republican convention and tried to steal the nomination from Richard Nixon, who had loyally built up party support.

His ego got the best of him again in 1976. Why did he have to mount another failed run against our sitting president, Jerry Ford? Reagan’s selfish careerism ensured Jimmy Carter’s election and the terrible four years that followed. Are we supposed to believe that a Hollywood actor and millionaire was going to appeal to the working classes?

Who thought up this insane fantasy of a supposed “Reagan Democrat” who purportedly will bolt over to a Republican corporate stooge and vote against his own interest, as if he didn’t learn in 1980 what Reaganism was? What the hell was that cheap slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” supposed to mean? This LMAGA slogan sounds like something from Reagan’s corny General Electric Theater days.

Reagan is also just too old and too reckless, and tanked the economy soon after he got elected. And no wonder Hollywood came out with all these end-of-days movies, given Reagan’s talk of putting nukes all over the globe. He is as phony as his jet-black hair and perpetual tan.  His wife thinks she is some sort of ex-model and starlet with all her pretentious clothes and supposed “taste.” Reagan should have listened to George Bush and dropped his crazy voodoo economics.

I also don’t like Reagan’s loose mouth. He once joked about the Hearst food give away, hoping the food had botulism and sickened poor people. Who says stuff like that? When the demonstrations spread on campuses, as governor he stirred the frenzy with taunts about getting the “bloodbath” over with. Whose bloodbath exactly? And just recently Reagan joked on a hot mic about bombing the Soviet Union—real funny when they have 7,000 real nukes pointed at us.

Why call the poor “welfare queens?” And did we really need his wild effort to stop the Panama Canal Treaty? Is it true that Nancy really has some sort of bizarre astrology calendar to calibrate his campaign appearances? Creepy. Can you imagine a president guided by the stars? And no one ever really investigated Reagan’s tax returns. Isn’t it true that one year he paid no income taxes and in a few others less than what blue-collar workers pay? Shouldn’t a congressional committee have investigated that?

Reagan is not all that conservative either, as he claims. Isn’t he the one who once signed the most liberal abortion bill in California history and first to give the state income tax withholding? He actually thinks the Cold War is winnable, as if the Russians don’t have thousands of nukes pointed at us. He’ll probably claim next that the Berlin Wall will soon fall.

Reagan may be doing better than Carter did on the economy, but we can’t take that risk again with someone who is just too unstable and ethically compromised. I mean Walter Mondale is a choir boy compared to Reagan.

When the Republican Party has real talent with experienced and polished winners and true conservatives like Bob Dole, Jerry Ford, and George Bush, why did they stoop to draft a TV personality like the host of “Death Valley Days”?

No, the wiser strategy in 1984 is to vote Mondale or stay home. That will teach the Republicans a lesson about nominating wild men who think they can cut taxes, increase defense, and still see the economy grow—without these huge deficits, a recession, or all this war talk with Russia. After Reagan takes the party down with him, and we have a needed catharsis, then the pros and pundits can come in and rebuild it the way it should be—and we can all forget this TV actor nightmare and his “make America great again” buffoonery.

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Photo Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.