The Double-Edged Sword: How Character Makes and Ruins Presidents, From Washington to Clintonby Robert Shogan
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Ever since a young George Washington admitted to chopping down the infamous cherry tree, the issue of character has been inextricably linked to the Oval Office. The American people have always expected their Presidents to serve not only as political leaders but also as role models of personal behavior. But as the millennium nears, character and values have taken on a significance never contemplated by Washington and the Founding Fathers. The Double-Edged Sword rebuts the claim put forward by Clinton and his supporters that a President's private life can be separated from his performance in office. By examining the morality of some of our most prominent and influential Chief Executives, Robert Shogan illustrates how Presidential character is a double-edged sword -- a weapon that can destroy a President's credibility, but also one that he can use to define himself and mobilize support.
The Washington Post
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If Bob Dole ever had a chance of winning the presidency of the United States, that opportunity came, and swiftly passed, during his first televised debate of the 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton. Did Dole believe, moderator Jim Lehrer asked midway through that confrontation, that there were relevant differences between him and Clinton "in the more personal areas"?
For a moment, anxious Democrats everywhere held their breath, while Republican pulses raced with joy. The "character issue," the jugular of Clinton's campaign, had been exposed, and Dole had been handed a dagger. He only needed to drive it home.
But Democrats need not have fretted. Dole had no such intention. "I don't like to get into personal matters," Dole said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is a campaign about issues." Scolded by his aides, Dole tried to revive the character issue in the second debate ten days later. But his scattershot sniping at the president failed to carry out its required objective of demonstrating Clinton's unfitness for the Oval Office. Despite a new wave of scandal besmirching Clinton's reputation in the closing days of the campaign, the outcome was never in doubt.
This lost opportunity underlines one of the profound conundrums of presidential politics made evident by Dole's frustration and Clinton's success. Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency "preeminently a place for moral leadership." Walter Dean Burnham describes our chief executives as "the high priests of the American civil religion." Moreover, political professionals in both parties are unanimous in their belief that in a political system where the significance of substantive campaign pledges has been diminished by the repeatedly demonstrated inability of politicians to redeem their promises, character is the bedrock issue in presidential elections.
Here then is the riddle: How did Clinton manage to defeat Dole when countless polls provided evidence for the intuitive judgment that the vast majority of the electorate viewed the incumbent as less honest, less trustworthy, less likely to stand by his convictions--in short, as a man of weaker character than his challenger?
The answer to this question leads to another riddle, and it was suggested to me by none other than Clinton himself. Early in the 1992 presidential campaign, when I had the chance to talk to then Governor Clinton one-on-one, I asked him whether he thought a candidate's personal behavior was a relevant guide to his performance as president.
"That is a question that every American has to answer for himself," he said. "But the question I would ask back is to what extent is that the real reason the press pursues these matters with such relentlessness?"
That was a typically shrewd response, intended to put the onus for the so-called character issue on the press rather than on the candidate. Moreover, as the debate on character has raged on throughout his presidency, shifting from Gennifer Flowers and the draft to Whitewater, Paula Jones, the fund-raising abuses of the 1996 campaign, and ultimately to his bizarre dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton has continued to challenge his critics--even as he bends every effort to present himself as a paragon of middle-class values and virtues.
But the contradictions between Clinton's preachments from the bully pulpit of the presidency and the allegations of personal misconduct and political chicanery that have marred his tenure only serve to point to the importance of the tantalizing question that he raised in our conversation: What is the connection between presidential character and presidential performance?
More than half a decade after the numerous scandals surrounding Clinton clouded his quest for the presidency and more than twenty years after Jimmy Carter won the White House by promising never to tell a lie, that question still begs an answer.
What is badly needed and what this book will strive to provide is a clear explanation of how the so-called character issue and the intertwined issue of values, which together now color all public debate on politics, are linked to the political process and governance. It is this connection that I examine from two perspectives: First, by showing how the strengths and weaknesses of presidential character help shape presidential performance for good and for ill, and second, by exploring how presidents and their rivals on the political stage use the public's perceptions of presidential character and values to manipulate political audiences--the press and the electorate.
This book will demonstrate that character is a double-edged sword--an instrument that can discredit presidents and destroy their credibility but also one that presidents can use to establish their political identity and mobilize support. In sum, character, combined with values, is the ultimate weapon in modern American politics.
Of course, presidential character has been an important aspect of the Oval Office since George Washington and the cherry tree. The American people have always expected their presidents, and to a lesser degree other stewards of the public trust, to serve not only as political leaders but also as role models of personal behavior, setting standards for raising their children. Indeed, this book will show that it was Washington's character that provided the constitutional foundation for the office he was the first to hold. Without the framers' faith in Washington, they would not have granted the chief executive even the limited powers that devolved upon that office. And once inaugurated, Washington, through character, endowed the presidency with the prestige that has allowed the office to survive for more than two centuries, despite the dubious conduct of some who have worn Washington's mantle.
More than that, this book will show that in the case of each of Washington's most important successors, character not only defined their performances but also helped to redefine the presidency as an institution. Thus, Thomas Jefferson's sinuous nature lent a Machiavellian dimension to the presidency that endures today. Andrew Jackson's bellicose personality established the presidency's populist side, and Franklin Roosevelt's matchless self-assurance helped to make the nation's highest office a reality in the average citizen's life.
But as the new millennium nears, character and values have taken on a significance never contemplated by Washington and the Founding Fathers, as the strategies of both parties in the 1996 presidential campaign demonstrated. "Family values is one of those alarm clock phrases," Clinton's then secretary of labor, Robert Reich, asserted as the I996 election approached. "It rattles people to attention whether we like it or not. The next election, I predict, will be a titanic struggle to define that term."
Reich proved to be prescient. In the campaign, Republican Dole denounced Hollywood for debasing American culture. And though Dole himself held back, his surrogates used every possible occasion to call attention to the incumbent president's personal frailties, while Democrat Clinton sought to protect children from the excesses of television and used his nominating convention to reaffirm his marriage and his parenthood.
And even after the campaign concluded, the turmoil over morality continued to roil the public arena, with questions surrounding the individual conduct of public figures and society's standards being raised painfully and conspicuously on all sides. In the months following the election, a candidate for chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was forced to withdraw from consideration following disclosure of an adulterous relationship. And Massachusetts congressman Joseph Kennedy, the most prominent scion of America's most storied political dynasty, was obliged to abandon his plans to run for governor of his native state by the twin furors over his annulled marriage and his brother Michael's dalliance with a teenage baby-sitter.
"You run for office, and people pass judgment on your life from the day you were born," observed Representative Joe Moakley, one of Kennedy's Democratic House colleagues from Massachusetts. No one understands the consequences of that axiom better than Bill Clinton, who, after becoming the first Democratic president since FDR to win reelection, had to reorganize a fund-raising committee set up to finance the legal problems arising from the various allegations of impropriety against him, even as he was forced to submit to a deposition in the sexual harassment law suit brought by Paula Corbin Jones.
Still, for his first six years on the national political stage, as a presidential candidate and chief executive, Clinton seemed to lead a charmed life, as he won his party's presidential nomination and then two elections for the White House. "The people whose character is really an issue are those who would divert the attention of the people and divide the country we love," he declared when his character first came under fire, claiming that examples of misbehavior alleged against him were mere peccadilloes that had no bearing on his performance in office. And ever since, Clinton has used much the same argument--along with indignant denials of misbehavior--to shield himself from the intermittent firestorms of criticism. But then, as he began the second year of his second term, he was forced to confront the most serious character-related charge of his career--that he sought to obstruct justice to cover up an affair with a young White House intern. And the cumulative toll taken on his credibility by all the previous controversies seemed to place his presidency in extreme peril.
In a legal sense, everyone agreed with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr when he pointed out that Clinton is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But in political terms, despite his strong showing in the polls in the months following the eruption of scandal, even Clinton's fellow Democrats worried over how long the public would continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The White House sex scandal both reflects and reinforces confusion among individual Americans about the moral standards they set for their elected officials, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. "People nowadays demand both the right to freedom and openness and acceptance in their sexual conduct, whatever it might be, and also the right to privacy," observed Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield.
Defenders of politicians accused of misconduct decry the focus on the private behavior of presidents as akin to Peeping Tomism. And they argue that had the postpresidential disclosures about the philandering of Dwight Eisenhower and FDR been public knowledge when they sought office, the nation might well have been denied their services.
And it is true enough that behavior that flouts propriety is not necessarily relevant. But some is. Thus, the fact that Warren Harding, who led America into the Roaring Twenties, had a mistress, means little by itself. But the mistress's revelation made after Harding's death that their relationship reflected Harding's obsessive need for approval and affection might have served as a warning of the scandalous corruption that ultimately engulfed a president who would not separate himself from his crooked friends because he feared being without any friends.
Academic research offers further evidence of the increasing salience of presidential character and values in shaping campaign debate and voter decision. In the past, most political scientists treated the personal qualities of White House contenders as superficial factors, less consequential than party loyalty and the importance of issues in determining election outcomes. But the erosion of party allegiance and the haziness of campaign issue debate has led scholars to put greater weight on the traits of individual candidates. A landmark study of voter assessments of presidential candidates, based on data collected by the National Election Studies covering nine presidential elections starting with Eisenhower's victory in 1952, concluded that at least five dimensions of an individual candidate's makeup have an important part in influencing which lever voters pull on election day. Besides competence, these include integrity, reliability, charisma, and personal, a sort of grab bag of miscellaneous factors such as a candidate's age, demeanor, and background.
These judgments are of course highly subjective and are made more so, as the study notes, because in evaluating these individual traits, voters draw on their own well-established conceptions about individual behavior and presidential performance. As Walter Lippmann pointed out in his celebrated Public Opinion, "We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice the thing is man or sunset and see chiefly what our mind is already full of on these subjects."
The authors of the study, Arthur H. Miller, Martin P. Wattenberg, and Oksana Malanchuk, conclude that "people have a preexisting knowledge structure or scheme concerning what a president should be like, and judge real candidates according to how well they meet the elements of these schemas." Moreover, they point out that the impact of character traits on the campaign is the result of a dynamic process that feeds on itself. "Voters abstract from their experience of past presidents those features and behaviors they associate with political success, and then evaluate other candidates with respect to these same characteristics." For their part, candidates during the campaign emphasize certain of their characteristics in ways intended to get favorable reaction from the voters. "Voters in turn respond to these campaign messages not only because they are relevant to their scheme for presidential candidates but also because these are the terms in which the political dialogue is conducted."
Admittedly, even under the light of scholarly research, character and values remain amorphous terms, subject to misinterpretation. For the purposes of this book, here is how I define them:
Character: The sum of a politician's psyche and personality; the internal drives that provide motivation and focus. Character has many facets and is not simply the equivalent of morality. In deciding between Clinton and Dole, voters had to balance Dole's reputed rectitude against Clinton's supposed compassion.
Values: The principles and beliefs that shape behavior for individuals and for society and that have taken on new prominence in the political arena. Presidents rely on private values to guide their own conduct and often use public values, such as freedom and equality, to rally support--if these values are consistent with their characters.
Character and values are the most powerful tools we have for political communication. Whether they are good or bad depends on how they are used--or abused. During the Reagan-Bush era, Republicans seemed far more adroit at using them--and abusing them--than their Democratic opponents. But Democrats can play this game, too, as FDR showed years ago in the midst of World War II by promulgating the celebrated Four Freedoms--freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear--as emotion-laden symbols of American beliefs. And Bill Clinton demonstrated similar skills when he first sought the presidency, offering his own life story as a paradigm for the American Dream. Striving to sustain that theme, with its potent appeal to the middle class, during his first year in the White House, Clinton repeated no fewer than seventy times his campaign promise to serve the interests of "of all those who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids, and play by the rules."
The good news about character and values is that their responsible use can help politicians forge coalitions to break the gridlock that at times seems to paralyze the political process--and can also help the media to enlighten readers and viewers. The bad news is that the misuse of character and values drowns out substantive arguments, distorts reality, and undermines the public confidence in politics and the press.
At any rate, what is clear is that for better and also for worse, the impact of character and values is pervasive and growing, principally on the presidency but also on nearly every other national public office and institution.
One reason for this is the decline of ideological distinctions and partisan allegiances. The cleavages between the Republicans and Democrats produced by the Great Depression, which Franklin Roosevelt brilliantly dramatized, have been eroded by the spread of economic well-being. But the Republicans--President Reagan in the eighties, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the nineties, or any of their lesser voices--have not yet been able to provide a satisfactory substitute. As a consequence, American politics is drifting, without any philosophical moorings. Many of the problems of government and society seem intractable, while debate centered on policy issues appears fruitless.
Just as significant is the turbulence in the moral arena. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the nation has been shaken by a series of jolts challenging standards of behavior: the AIDS epidemic that mocked the sexual permissiveness dominant in the 1960s, the Wall Street scandals that stained the glorified image of the acquisitive entrepreneur established in the Reagan era, the revelations of sordid self-indulgence by the electronic clerics who had set themselves up as guardians of the public's mores, and, most recently, the scandal-stained record of the Clinton White House.
Another contributing factor is the increasing openness of the political system. As political parties have declined and presidential primaries proliferated, the media have become power brokers of a sort, partly replacing the old-time bosses who held sway in smoke-filled rooms and guarded the channels of political discourse.
"This is a different political system," Hugh Heclo, a George Mason University political scientist, argues. "There is no establishment which controls information. The whole range of candidate behavior has been opened up and it's ridiculous to think you can recreate those days."
In this environment, politicians, particularly presidents, have tended to personalize their office and, taking advantage of the new channels of communication provided by the explosion of communications technology, reach out through the media to exploit the emotions of the electorate. And the media, grappling with some of the same problems, have found it hard to resist their tactics.
Presidents have always enjoyed prestige, but in the past, they were regarded from a distance, as abstract representations of their office and their actions. The modern media, particularly television, have thrust them into our family rooms and have inflated their personas out of all proportion.
Yet not all this attention is welcome. If the personalized presidency has created cultural heroes, it has also produced political villains. Just as the Cold War, establishing the permanent threat of nuclear destruction throughout the second half of this century, fastened attention on the president, upon whom our chances of survival seemed to depend, two great national traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, vividly demonstrated the connection between character defects and disastrous policies. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, two very different men, each from a different party, were seen as mendacious and deceitful, driven to self-destructive actions by forces they could not control.
The dramatic public reaction paved the way for the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to win the White House prior to Clinton. Carter made great capital of his background as a born-again Christian; his promise to never tell a lie and his sterling character traits, underlined by the contrast between him and Johnson and Nixon, helped him win the presidency. Of course, if uprightness were the sole criterion for presidential leadership, Jimmy Carter's visage would by now have been carved on Mount Rushmore.
But presidential character is complex. Carter's strong moral foundation could not offset another character trait--his rigidity, one of the major reasons his presidency failed.
Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, whose signal success in communication was making his personality the embodiment of his beliefs. He did this so well that his opponents joined his admirers in calling him the Great Communicator, an appellation that allowed them to suggest that Reagan's early success in the White House was founded on gimmickry. But Reagan's talent in communicating his political beliefs and values was not the result of any trick. Rather, it was his ability to bond his personality with his convictions. His message was persuasive because it was consistent with the messenger. Of course, Reagan's consistency did not entirely make up for a certain laziness, a tendency not to understand things he did not want to understand. This allowed Reagan to become ensnared in the notorious arms-for-hostages transaction with Iran, which cast a pall over the conclusion of his presidency.
George Bush had neither Ronald Reagan's gifts as a campaigner nor his strong convictions. But he broke new ground on the character issue in his race against Democratic standard-bearer Michael Dukakis. Instead of attacking Dukakis's character directly, Bush attacked his values, which he implied were evidence of the hapless Dukakis's character defects. Pounding away at a series of episodes in Dukakis's record as Massachusetts governor, he depicted Dukakis as a figure outside the middle-class mainstream. Democrats accused Bush of cheap shots and distortion. But they recognized that his thrusts struck home with the voters.
In the wake of Dukakis's defeat, pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded that Dukakis's inarticulateness had left Bush's "savage caricature" as the dominant image of the Democratic Party--short on patriotism and indifferent to the values of work and family. Yet at the same time that the country was supposedly caught up in a pervasive conservative mood, Greenberg noted, polling data showed that voters favored an activist agenda for government.
What was needed to take advantage of these liberal impulses, Greenberg argued, was a Democratic model that could replace the New Deal and the Great Society and reach the middle-class voters who had left the party. This diagnosis set the stage for the New Democrat paradigm, which carried Bill Clinton to the White House. Along with a bundle of policy proposals, the model relied heavily on values and character, as embodied by Clinton, to touch the emotions and win the hearts of the voters. The problem with this strategy is that Clinton has fallen woefully short of living up to his part of it. Early in his 1992 candidacy, when he was dogged by allegations of infidelity and draft avoidance, he dismissed the issue of character. "The people whose character and patriotism is really an issue in this election are those who would divert the attention of the people, who destroy the reputations of their opponents and divide the country we love," he declared.
But once he escaped fatal damage from the first barrage of character attacks, Clinton appeared to change his mind about the relevance of character and values, as he tried to play out the role Greenberg had sketched for him. "My life is a testament to the fact that the American Dream works," he declared as he stumped the country on the way to the White House. "Leadership, rules, responsibility, and love ... I got to live by the rules that work in America and I wound up here today running for president of the United States of America."
And as this book will show, the questions of character that have hung over his presidency like a cloud since its inception have been framed by this same contradiction. On the one hand, as he defends himself against the myriad allegations about his behavior, Clinton denies the relevance of character to his presidency. On the other hand, he makes every effort to convince the middle-class electorate that he does indeed embody those traits and values that make up the New Democrat model.
Yet for all the distortions and confusions surrounding the character issue during the Clinton presidency, the constant controversy serves only to underline the reality that presidential character remains a powerful element in the political system and, given the limitations of that system, a potentially constructive force. Moreover, given the highly personalized nature of the U.S. political system, politicians and scholars alike argue that there is no better way of choosing a candidate for president than by evaluating what kind of human being he--or she--really is. "Voters know that the issues a president will have to face will change in time," Robert Teeter, a GOP pollster and senior Bush campaign strategist, once told me. "But his character will always be there." And these words from a contemporary political operative reflect thinking that has prevailed in the Republic since its founders met two centuries ago in Constitution Hall.
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Meet the Author
Robert Shogan has spent more than thirty years covering the political scene in Washington as national political correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Government at the Center for Study of American Government of Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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