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

By Miroff, Bruce | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview

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


Miroff, Bruce, Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.