Magazine article Reason

Hail to the Crook?

Magazine article Reason

Hail to the Crook?

Article excerpt

Clinton, Harding, and the politics of reputation

Voters this year have been presented with a presidential choice based largely on character: This is the season of the politics of reputation. For evidence, one need only examine the summer's best-seller lists: Riding high was Unlimited Access, the book by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich that tells, among other tales, the poorly sourced story that the president sneaks out for midnight trysts with sexy celebrities. Other summer books, such as Roger Morris's Partners in Power, appeared to deepen the moral indictment of the first family; yet more thick character examinations are due out before the election.

Such front-page furors as the FBI files case, coupled with the issues of Whitewater, Travelgate, and the rest of the Clinton crew's notorious repertory, indicate the role that personality plays in this election. It seems that at the least the Republicans will keep it part of the campaign's atmospherics: They see Bill Clinton's reputation as vulnerable to attack. People do not believe Clinton, claims the GOP; Bob Dole goes so far as to say they would not trust him as their children's babysitter. With 63 percent of respondents to a summer Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll saying they were "not confident" of "Bill Clinton's honesty and truthfulness," Republicans have room for attack.

In politics, reputation is the coin of the realm. Even more than the proponent of a set of policies, a politician is a public figure: a man or woman with whom the public develops a meaningful, if mediated, relationship; what sociologists term para-social interaction. Americans feel that they "know" Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. When Michael Dukakis's running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, skewered Dan Quayle by saying that he was no Jack Kennedy - a comparison Quayle had himself invited - the remark was powerful because his audience appreciated the differences in reputation between Kennedy and Quayle.

American politics is structured as a competitive game, so there will always be those who will look for an opening to make their side look good, or to besmirch the opposition. This is so taken for granted that we label it "politics as usual." A president's reputation is at the mercy of both critics and supporters: The two parties jockey with each other in building and destroying reputations.

In time political leaders develop - or accrue - reputations to which both friend and foe have contributed. Bob Dole, for example, is seen as the elderly, disabled, Washington player; the consummate insider who lacks both vision and oratorical power. The president is known as an ethically challenged baby boomer, a gregarious, "compassionate" pol whose policy concerns are grounded in calculations of self-interest. We filter the policy pronouncements of our leaders by what we know of their character.

Yet political reputations, as George Bush can tell us with chagrin, can fluctuate rapidly. While a politician is active, his reputation can be burnished by his actions and the attentions of his friends, or can be smeared by the activities of his cronies. The reputations of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon both attest to the fact that even after the sunset of one's political career, virtuous deeds coupled with active public relations can change the public's view - at least in some measure. While professional Nixon haters will never alter their opinion, by the time of his death the formerly disgraced ex-president was given an honorable send-off.

Eventually, after politicians, their agents, and their enemies have left the scene, historians take their turn in solidifying presidential reputations, writing the textbooks that teach students which leaders deserve honor. Historians have great weight in shaping our collective memory. Thus, while President Woodrow Wilson was roundly disliked by the American public at the end of his presidency (the Democrats wanted no part of a third term for Wilson), historians, sympathetic to Wilson's background as an academic historian and his quixotic quest for world peace through the League of Nations, have elevated him into the pantheon of the near-great presidents. …

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