The Contemporary Presidency: Moral Character in the White House: From Republican to Democratic

Article excerpt

Each new president changes the questions we ask about the presidency. Ronald Reagan's term led presidency scholars to ask about the kinds of knowledge that presidents need to function effectively. George Bush's term led to analysis of the dilemmas of leadership in the post-cold war, postmodern era. Bill Clinton's term raises the question of moral character.

In the agonizingly protracted season of scandal and impeachment that enveloped the Clinton presidency from the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky to his acquittal by the Senate, talk of presidential morality was everywhere. Clinton's critics denounced the president for diminishing the moral authority of the presidency and presenting an immoral role model for American youth. Clinton's defenders decried his sexual antics and lying but insisted that his immoral conduct was private and did not detract from the performance of his public duties (which included the pursuit of such moral objectives as aiding the disadvantaged, healing the nation's racial divisions, and making peace in some of the world's most troubled spots). The president himself adopted the language of sin and repentance in his search for public forgiveness.

Americans' periodic preoccupation with presidential morality eventually fades, giving way to a more common preoccupation with presidential effectiveness, as Jimmy Carter discovered to his chagrin. But there are serious issues to be considered in the controversy over presidential morality that President Clinton evoked. In his timely new book, The President as Leader, Erwin Hargrove (1998) makes the case that "political leadership must contain a moral element if it is to be fully effective" (p. 2). I agree with Hargrove on the importance of the moral dimension in presidential leadership. But the thrust of this article is that the moral codes that shape public expectations of presidential conduct are changeable and that the standard of presidential morality in the 1990s is very different than it was when the presidency was established.

In this article, I contrast the presidential morality of the 1790s, the first decade of the new executive office, with the presidential morality of the 1990s. My focus is on the subject of character. I use the word character in a moral and cultural sense rather than in a psychological sense, as a set of norms about what is to be expected and desired in conduct. Employing this analytical lens, the key difference between the 1790s and the 1990s is between republican character in the presidency and democratic character in the presidency.

First, consider republican character. As Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (1993) write in The Age of Federalism, in the founding era "character" was seen as "objectively visible.... Washington, when he became President, would announce his intention to appoint, if possible, only `the first Characters' to high public office.... In Washington's day, `character' had essentially a public meaning; it was virtually synonymous with `reputation'" (p. 37).

In a penetrating analysis of republican character, Robert Wiebe (1984) points out that it was the basis for claims of leadership in the founding era. Republican character was the mark of a "natural aristocracy." As Wiebe states, "Five qualities framed its meaning at the top of the hierarchy: courage, resolution, moderation, dedication, and control" (p. 12). Of these five qualities, the most critical for republican character was control. A republican character was expected to express dignity, gravity, and a measured, balanced judgment in his public life. The inability to master one's passions, the failure of self-control, was a serious and perhaps fatal flaw for a republican character.

Since republican character was not a question of psychological depths but of public surfaces, it was always subject to public judgment. Any failure of character, if widely publicized and believed in, might destroy a political leader's legitimacy. …