The Presidents in Office
WHITE House starffer Barbara Honegger has observed that remarks about Ronald Reagan's ethical problems often were met by the response, "Compared to whom" 1 This question not only capsulizes the kind of relativist ethics so popular in the 1980s but also reveals a problem peculiar to the presidency. The reason White House people could use "Compared to whom?" as a kind of unanswerable question is that the president is thought to be incomparable. How can we hold a president to an ethical standard if there is no one else in that unique situation, facing the particular problems and challenges of the time. Even if we tried to do so, we would see that surely another of these unusual beings must have acted in the same way, even if we do not know that for sure. Accordingly, Richard Nixon could point out that, although he was blamed for Watergate, many of his predecessors would be found as guilty for other acts if only the facts were known.
Americans tend to look at their government and its problems one president at a time. This focus is encouraged by news media who focus on the present rather than the past, the individual apart from the pattern. It is embraced by citizens who want a concrete embodiment of democratic government to celebrate and identify with. It is supported by the presidents themselves,