There’s a silver lining to the vexing question of character and politics…
The relationship of character to politics was much in the news last year, as two candidates of – shall we say? – questionable character sought to lead us. Whether the character of our leaders truly matters is a question as old as the idea of self-government, chewed over by nearly every political chin-puller since Plato.
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It’s not hard to see why. Once somebody got the bright idea that ordinary people (however defined) should be able to choose who their leaders are, the next question immediately arose: “How do we know who to choose?”
Plato’s answer was that rulers should be chosen according to their character – their honesty, reliability, probity, disinterestedness, sense of justice, and willingness to keep their hands off the interns. Such qualities should even outweigh other factors such as intelligence or amiability. “The community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious,” he wrote in The Republic. “But if the guardians of the laws and the state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity, become a mere sham, then clearly [the community] is completely ruined.”
Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, glanced around the Agora, took the measure of his fellow citizens, and decided that no community could count on getting the ruler of Plato’s dreams. “There are many persons who are similar [in quality],”Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, “yet none of them are so outstanding as to match the extent and the claim to merit the office [of ruler].”
Given the fragility of human nature, Aristotle figured that the more important question would be how to build a system of government that could survive even when leaders went astray. Lucky for us, our founders agreed. “The aim of every political constitution,” says The Federalist Papers, “is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.” So far so good. However, the second aim of the constitution should be “to take the most effectual precautions for keeping [the rulers] virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
The authors of the U.S. Constitution rooted the government in the assumption that leaders are apt to show themselves to be of bad character once in a while – just like old King George III. That’s why the ultimate authority rests with the voters to remove leaders who prove to be louts. It’s why the functioning of the government is divided among different power centers, so no single branch, and no single official, can acquire overwhelming power. It’s why we have a federal system that splits authority between state and federal governments.
The other aim of the founders, though, was to make a system that would encourage virtue, or good character, in the leaders themselves. On that score, the results are mixed. Many rogues have come close – too close for comfort – to the White House. Some have made it all the way in…
Bad guys can end up as bad presidents – John Tyler (1841-1845), for example, who in Theodore Roosevelt’s words was “a politician of monumental littleness,” a happy slaveowner, and later in life an avid secessionist at the cusp of the Civil War.
They can also end up as good presidents: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), who slaughtered Seminoles without a second thought but managed, as chief executive, to hold off the big government statists of his era.
Yet there have been bad presidents, like the feckless James Buchanan (1857-1861), who have been good guys. And there have been good guys who have been good, or even great, presidents: Calvin Coolidge (1922-1929), hero of every believer in limited government; William McKinley (1897-1901), who marked the course that made the 20th century, “the American Century”; and Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), who cracked down on robber barons and runaway labor unions alike.
So if the government is designed to limit the damage that people of bad character can do, does that mean character doesn’t matter? The voters themselves aren’t too sure, apparently.
One survey on public attitudes toward character and politics, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, found that three out of four Americans rejected the idea that character is “just a nice-sounding word with little real meaning,” and 90% agree that good character is essential to a successful democracy. At the same time, 54% believe a “politician can be effective even if he has little personal character.”
This hasn’t kept candidates and their consultants and publicists from trying to raise the “character issue” with alarming regularity. Both sides did it last year. (And they both had a point!)
The issue is usually raised as a partisan cudgel, disguised as moral discernment. The columnist William Safire, who in one inspired moment in the 1970s concocted the deathless epithet “nattering nabobs of negativism” for Spiro Agnew to use against Democrats, was the great student of linguistic sleight of hand in politics. The term “character issue,” he wrote, was supposed to refer to “the moral uprightness of a candidate;” in practice, it was simply “a euphemism for an attack on a candidate for philandering.” He was writing during the era of Bill Clinton, who was dogged by the “character issue” his entire career, for the simple reason that for his entire career he had been working his way through an almost Kennedy-esque parade of groupies.
With Clinton in office, therefore, the character issue was suddenly of paramount importance for Republicans, and they flew into high dudgeon. One Republican hack thrilled her party’s convention in 1992 by attacking Clinton with the refrain “You can’t be one kind of man and another kind of president” – a pithy summary of the argument that good character is essential to good government. William Bennett, the Republicans’ chief moral sage and author of the bestselling Book of Virtues, spent most of Clinton’s presidency lecturing the public on the transcendent importance of good character in public life – with the implicit rebuke to our Satyr-in-Chief.
“It is our character that supports the promise of our future – far more than particular government programs or policies,” Bennett wrote, as a sex scandal swirled around the president. “The President is the symbol of who the people of the United States are. He is the person who stands for us in the eyes of the world and the eyes of our children.”
Well, that was then. The Republican party, of course, is now led by a man who could match, and in many cases outdo, President Clinton, tryst for tryst, lie for lie, character flaw for character flaw.
Somewhere around May 2016, when it became clear that Donald Trump would be their nominee, Republicans suddenly dropped the moral dudgeon, withdrew their character-is-king philosophy, and replaced it with a thoroughly instrumentalist view of the presidency: good character might be nice to have, sure, but so long as taxes get cut and regulations rolled back, why get all huffy about a president just because, among countless other examples of wobbly character, he told his second wife he was divorcing her by leaking it to the New York Post?
One of the first party stalwarts to reconcile himself to the possibility of a White House led by Howard Stern’s favorite interlocutor was… but of course… William Bennett. Republicans who opposed Trump on character grounds, the ex-Reverend Bennett announced last year, suffer from a “terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” He may want to update the Book of Virtues.
Those of us without a strong party identification should be excused for thinking: Can’t we just agree that both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are sleazeballs and leave it at that? Not in politics, apparently.
Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. If you’re on the Democratic side of the aisle, for example, you will dismiss the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne as an unfortunate side effect of Ted Kennedy’s lousy sense of direction. Over there on the Republican side, you’ll happily downplay Donald Trump Jr.’s obvious willingness to collude with Russian thugs in 2016 as an overabundance of youthful enthusiasm and filial piety.
There’s a silver lining to this vexing question of character and politics. Our leaders aren’t saints – and this may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps we can simply defer to Machiavelli. He warned that a ruler who was too consumed in a particular virtue – generosity, let’s say – would sooner or later bring the state to ruin, fiscally or otherwise. On the other hand, qualities that most people believe indicate bad character – duplicity, for example – will be indispensable to a ruler who is trying to guarantee the survival of the state against the aggression of its enemies.
And history does suggest strength of character can stand in the way of being a good leader. One newspaperman said of FDR that his first impulse in any situation was to lie; only after he’d taken the temperature of the people he was talking to did he gradually shade over into telling the truth. Roosevelt lied to the American people after Pearl Harbor, as the biographer Richard Reeves noted, by publicly denying the plain fact that the U.S. Pacific fleet had been crippled by the Japanese. Telling the truth in such circumstances – doing what “good character,” so defined, would demand – could have weakened the confidence of the public when it was needed most. Honesty would have been a terrible failure of leadership.
FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was one of the most generous, honest, compassionate, learned, and far-seeing men ever to live in the White House. It’s not clear that he ever said something he knew to be untrue. And he was an abject failure as a president.
Sometimes it can seem that all the talk about character in politics – talk that ranges from humid sanctimony to arid nihilism – is simply a dodge, an elaborate missing of the point.
Maybe a majority of the public is right when it says a leader of bad character would be no real threat to the health of the Republic. The reason is that the good character truly required by self-government doesn’t reside in leaders but in the people themselves. Our leaders, in other words, are simply reflections of the people who choose them. Whether this is reassuring or horrifying is a question for another time.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.