Does Character in Politics Matter?
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. 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. 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
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),
40 | October 2017
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