President Clinton and Character Questions

By Cronin, Thomas E.; Genovese, Michael A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

President Clinton and Character Questions


Cronin, Thomas E., Genovese, Michael A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


President Clinton's critics relentlessly attack him on the character issue. His supporters no longer even bother to put up much of a defense of the president, shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Well, at least he is doing a good job." It is now all but universally accepted that President Clinton is "character challenged," that he has certain character weaknesses, and yet, in spite of these flaws, he has been at least a good president.

The gap between Bill Clinton's polling ratings of his job performance and his personal character has been persistent and wide. In June 1998, for example, a CNN-Time poll reported that while 63 percent of those surveyed gave Clinton a favorable rating for being an effective president, only 33 percent approved of his personal character, thus creating a 30 percent "character gap."

Poll data indicate that many people approve of Clinton's presidency who do not necessarily approve of him and his widely discussed social life. As the editors of the April/May issue of The Public Perspective put it, "Lots Who Say They Approve Clinton's Handling of the Presidency Don't Approve of Clinton."(1)

Those who voted for Clinton in 1992 and 1996 were aware Clinton was a flirt and possibly even a rogue. But those who generally identified with his domestic and foreign policy proposals made what amounted to a Faustian bargain. "We overlooked Mr. Clinton's past indiscretions--he was hardly the first politician with testosterone overload," writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman,

   on the condition that he pursue his agenda and postpone his next dalliance
   until after he left the White House. But he broke the bargain. I knew he
   was a charming rogue with an appealing agenda, but I didn't think he was a
   reckless idiot with an appealing agenda.(2)

A generation ago, political scientist James David Barber urged us to pay more attention to presidential character. He encouraged voters to support candidates who liked people, liked politics, had high self-esteem, and had high energy. These active-positive types were far less likely than others, claimed Barber, to become rigid, dogmatic, petty, and paranoid.(3) But Barber, writing more than twenty-five years ago, did not dwell on sexual indiscretions or the sexual habits of would-be presidents.

Other writers have often ignored or even dismissed sexual behavior in explaining presidential effectiveness or lack thereof. Thus, historian Stephen Ambrose differentiates between two presidents about whom he has written. Dwight Eisenhower may have had a wartime dalliance with an aide yet was a man with impeccable integrity. He believed his word was his bond and had an abiding respect for other people. Nixon was a model family man. But "Richard Nixon, by contrast, respected almost no one and had contempt for so many. This, not any personal pecadillos, is what Mr. Ambrose argues" is the difference between Eisenhower's and Nixon's characters.(4)

Character counts, yet not as much nor in the same way most scholars probably have believed. Americans tell pollsters every four years they would like presidential candidates who are honest and who have character. The Clinton experience encourages a reconsideration. He has had a reasonably effective presidency, and, despite his well publicized flaws, most Americans approve of the way he has handled the job.

We speculate there are several reasons why Clinton has not been crucified on the cross of character. First, most people most of the time, especially between presidential elections, are more likely to judge a president on the basis of the economy's performance (stock market, inflation, unemployment, interest rates, economic growth, etc.) than on personal character traits. And the economy has been Clinton's best ally.

Second, Clinton had the ironic good fortune of having Judge Starr as his legal antagonist. Starr repeatedly made mistakes that allowed Clinton's friends to raise compelling questions about Start and his tactics.

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