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Many of us are familiar with the character of Salvatore Tessio in the film “The Godfather.” Portrayed by Abe Vigoda, who also later played Fish in the television show “Barney Miller,” Tessio was the Corleone family capo who betrays Michael Corleone after the death of Don Vito Corleone. When unmasked by the family and being led way to his grisly fate, he tells his captors, “Tell Mike it was only business . . . ”
What better serves effectiveness in the office of president of the United States: a leader whose personality is admired or a leader who, with manifest personal faults, is effective at business? From the Left, it’s Jimmy Carter versus Woodrow Wilson. From the Right, Jerry Ford versus Donald Trump.
What makes a better chief executive, character or results?
You want to say, “both.” But in the cutthroat realities of politics with the need for any president to surmount the pinnacle of the system, can a person who puts a classic notion of personal integrity first make it to the top? I would venture that it’s not likely. Forced to choose, I would go with results. I would thus give that kind of president, in regards to spotless deportment, “The Tessio Waiver.” Because for that guy, it’s “only business.”
Yes, there have been exceptions and theoretically there may be some in the future. Ronald Reagan for the Republicans and Harry Truman for the Democrats were men of character who many think were proficient in office. But many more men took a different approach to the presidency, adhering to a flexible attitude. Perhaps that turned out better for the country, even in the moral sense. For as we recall in the case with Carter, seeming integrity can easily slip into self-righteousness and sanctimony.
Ah, yes, remember Jimmy?
Walking in the inaugural parade (past presidents had been driven in limos), and carrying his own luggage for all the cameras to see, Carter was the supposed fresh broom after years of the Watergate scandal and Vietnam. He succeeded Jerry Ford, who himself had succeeded the ultimate (at least in his first term) argument for results over moral stature, Richard Nixon. Carter went as far as to assure voters during the election campaign, “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement.”
Yeah, you read that right.
Carter quickly went to work cleaning house. In the era of post-1960s liberalism, that meant putting into effect nostrums promulgated by the shaggy Left. So, he gutted U.S. intelligence capabilities, reduced the strength of the military, and established the Department of Education. He had the bad luck, though his policies did nothing to ameliorate the situation, to be sitting in the Oval Office when a global energy crisis hit in earnest, creating massive resentment and frustration amongst consumers, as they often had to wait in line for hours at gas stations. And that was when there was gas to be had. The economic reverb sent the country spiraling into severe unemployment, higher inflation, and skyrocketing interest rates. The confluence of these indicators became known as “the misery index.”
On the national security front he indulged in appeasing the Soviets, much to the cynical amusement of the Kremlin. The Soviets ran rampant from Africa to Central America. Carter confronted them with pleas for peace and understanding, though in a less lyrical manner than Elvis Costello. In the face of such weakness, the Russians redoubled their efforts. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Carter was appalled. How could they do that, he seemed to wonder like a scorned lover, after all I did for them?
Through all this, however, he maintained the aura of a naïve Sunday school teacher who couldn’t be bothered with the evil inherent in a portion of mankind. Realpolitik was for the sclerotic and old-fashioned. We needed to get over our “inordinate fear of Communism” and embrace the new age of rainbows and lollipops.
And as the sanctimonious usually do, Carter was constantly reminding us what a good man he was by, well, saying what a good man he was. During a television speech he blamed the national malaise on the American people. Coming from the architect of said malaise, that was rich.
When he was clobbered by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, his defeat was due to many left-of-center voters who had switched their support—not because they thought he was a bad man or too liberal. They switched sides simply because, by their own lights, Carter was an ineffectual loser.
A Crippled Devil
Contrast Jimmy Carter with Woodrow Wilson. Of course, as a conservative I loathe Wilson and find him to easily be the worst president in the history of the republic.
Still as the progressive he was elected to be, Wilson was generally effective. But, what a jerk!
He was a proud racist, a nasty pedant, and a supercilious little man who would not compromise out of sheer bloody mindedness. When he fell gravely ill, becoming an incoherent invalid, he went along with his wife and his aides and hoodwinked the country about his illness. Those who knew him well, both personally and politically, could not stand to be in his presence for more than a few minutes. His few friends made allowances because they recognized his will to power and shared his ideology. He campaigned on “keeping us out of war” and almost as soon as he was reelected he shipped hundreds of thousands of Americans off to World War I.
But if the people wanted a progressive president, they got one good and hard. Wilson got them women’s suffrage, the income tax, ratification of the constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of U.S. senators (a mistake that reduced an upper house to the 100-member supercharged House of Representatives we deal with today), and a host of other indecent liberal fantasies between 1913 and 1921. The biggest and most idiotic, of course, being Prohibition.
True to himself, Wilson authorized the authoritarian Palmer Raids that went after his enemies to the left with vicious abandon and muffed approval of the League of Nations in the Senate because he cut all the Republicans out of the process.
Nevertheless, you got to give the senile, crippled devil his due. His changes were permanent and altered the way we do government business top-to-bottom. Bad guy, but an effective president for the Left.
Plodding with Ford
In contrast, consider Jerry Ford. He’s the guy who really took the brunt of the Watergate and Vietnam fallout because he was vice president during that time and succeeded to office after Nixon resigned. Saigon fell during his watch. The oil embargo hit him in office, as did an increase in the inflation rate. This motivated him pathetically to advocate the wearing of “WIN” buttons. “WIN” stood for “Whip Inflation Now.” Attempted government by lapel logo. That PR campaign fell very, very, flat.
Ford’s style could be plodding and he pursued détente with the Soviets, but he wasn’t crafty enough to make it work to America’s advantage, as had Nixon. In many ways he was a quiet man who had made his way up the GOP House ladder before getting the nod to be vice president because of loyalty and perseverance. He also pardoned Richard Nixon, to his own political detriment. Thus the nation was spared a Watergate encore that the bloodthirsty Democrats would have loved to have acted out.
Ford’s perceived clumsiness (in fact, he was an accomplished athlete) made him the subject of sport all over the popular culture and there didn’t seem to be a month that went by when a lunatic wasn’t trying to shoot him. Yet, he kept his moral equilibrium and his rock solid integrity. He never degenerated into self-righteousness, as Carter did. Ford laughed at himself along with others and brought an honest stability to the office much lacking after the Shakespearean drama of the Nixon epoch. In the 1976 presidential election, with all the GOP baggage of Watergate and the loss of Vietnam, he still managed to come within a hair’s breadth of beating Carter.
That being said, history is a cruel narrator and he is remembered as a good man engulfed and overcome by a worsening economy, the legacy of Watergate, and the embarrassing morass of the end of Vietnam. Recall the helicopter on the roof scene at our CIA annex as the NVA was closing in? That belongs to Jerry Ford.
A Tremendous SOB
Now we come to the current occupant of the Oval Office. Where to begin?
Not a consistently good husband like Carter and Ford, not a rhetorical grownup like Wilson, and not an amiable warrior like Reagan. Donald Trump is at times childishly petulant and vindictive, morally ambiguous, and spins and jukes on policy like the swiftest of running backs. His use of social media can be amazingly self-defeating and bombastic. In this White House, facts can be altered and manipulated to suit political needs, as in any White House, and the chief is more of an entertainer than an administrator.
We don’t go to the polls every four years to elect a school marm or a cleric. We attempt to elect a successful leader who can don the mantle of the presidency in all its forms, including the dramatic. We elect a leader who we expect to guard our safety and make government work, or at least get out of the way.
Those of us who are conservatives expect more than that, and in Donald Trump we have a president who will tackle those things with a fighting style, confident demeanor, and an effectiveness that leaves his opponents choking on his dust. Yeah, he might be a tremendous SOB. But he’s our SOB and he’s a damned good one.
Trump has to be that hard as today’s opposition. The “long march through the institutions” has made its mark and the Left of 2019, as we see in the Democratic Party today, is a collection of grievance mongers, socialists, and national masochists who would like nothing better than reshape America according to their dark and twisted vision. This kind of political fight is not well suited to a quiet and effacing gentleman who plays by Marquess of Queensbury rules. It takes a brawler, a bully, a quick on his feet tactician who can set traps and bait the Left to walk into them. In those attributes, and to protect the traditional America he and the rest of us cherish, the president does not disappoint.
Sal Tessio, as he was being led away by Corleone goons, would have understood. Ergo, the Donald gets a waiver. The difference between President Trump and Sal Tessio is less in style than in result. In the end, Sally lost in the first installment of the trilogy.
Though Donald Trump is already in the third year of the drama, he is not losing. In fact, my guess is that he’s on his way to an even better sequel.
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images