American Consequences - October 2017

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.

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