The Character Factor: How We Judge America's Presidents

The Character Factor: How We Judge America's Presidents

The Character Factor: How We Judge America's Presidents

The Character Factor: How We Judge America's Presidents



The American president's character matters. To most Americans, it matters deeply. But how do we define what character means, and why can't we agree?

In this sober, probing consideration of "the character factor" and the presidency, veteran political analyst James P. Pfiffner leads us through a survey of three aspects of presidential character that have proved problematic for recent chief executives: lies, promise-keeping, and sexual probity. His goal is not to tell us which presidents have been "good" and which "bad." Rather, he helps us think critically and impartially about complex character issues and invites us to reach our own conclusions.

The Character Factor avoids both the abyss of moral relativism and the desert of political cynicism. It helps us look at our presidents (and our presidential candidates) without illusions, knowing that flawed men can still be great leaders but that some flaws deserve defeat at the polls-or even the ultimate presidential sanction, impeachment.


In the spring of 1998 members of the Clinton administration found themselves playing roles in a drama that the president had created, but they were not sure whether they were involved in a farce or a tragedy. in truth, the sexual imbroglio the president had created contained elements of both.

The farcical elements resembled an eighteenth-century comedy of manners in which the main character is caught in a sexual affair with a woman not his wife and is greatly embarrassed by the discovery. Clinton’s affair also had some far-fetched coincidences reminiscent of musical comedy. the president is brought to court by a woman (Paula Jones) who felt that her honor had been publicly impugned by the author of an article that identified her by only her first name. She claimed that Governor Clinton’s rejected sexual proposition to her and its aftermath constituted sexual harassment.

Another woman (Linda Tripp), scorned by the president’s lawyer, taped the maunderings of another young woman (Monica Lewinsky) who claimed to have had an affair with the president and was despondent because he was not returning her calls. Tripp tipped off Jones’s lawyers, who set a trap by asking the president in a sworn deposition whether he had had an affair with Lewinsky. the president answered in the negative. the judge later threw the sexual harassment case out of court, but the damage was done. the press went into a feeding frenzy; independent counsel Kenneth Starr was hot on Clinton’s trail; and the rest made history.

The farcical aspects of the situation were evident because it seemed so petty. That the president would risk his whole administration and legacy for a little sexual gratification was incredible. If the story line had been proposed for a novel, any decent editor would have rejected it; the character motivation and plot would not have been credible.

But important issues were also at stake. Compounding the legal but morally dubious affair, the president was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. His refusal to come forth with evidence and explanations raised the question of whether the president was above the law and could resist legal inquiry. in a series of legal showdowns courts decided that . . .

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