Constitutional Character: Virtues and Vices in Presidential Leadership

By Thompson, Dennis F. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Character: Virtues and Vices in Presidential Leadership


Thompson, Dennis F., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Consider two candidates for president. Candidate A has engaged in questionable financial dealings and consorted with criminal types while in office, but is an exemplary family man. Candidate B has had several extramarital affairs, but his financial record is above reproach. Whom should voters choose?

Recent candidates may come to mind, but the question actually refers to the 1884 presidential election--the contest between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Blaine had corruptly profited from public office but lived an impeccable private life. Cleveland had a reputation for public integrity, but had been forced to acknowledge fathering an illegitimate child. Here is what one of Cleveland's supporters said during the campaign:

I gather that Mr. Cleveland has shown high character and great capacity in public office, but that in private life his conduct has been open to question, while, on the other hand, Mr. Blaine, in public life has been weak and dishonest, while he seems to have been an admirable husband and father. The conclusion that I draw from these facts is that we should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently fitted to adorn. (Howe 1932, 151)

The separation between private and public life may not be as sharp as Cleveland's supporter implies. Some kinds of otherwise private immoralities can affect public responsibilities. How we should draw the line between the public and private for officials can be a quite complex question (Thompson 2005, 227-42). But for the purposes of addressing the question of the qualities we should want in a president, the main implication of this and similar examples is that ethical virtues do not always go together. It is quite possible to be moral in public but not in private, and vice versa. Most of the leading conspirators in the Watergate scandal led impeccable private lives. And some presidents who are regarded as ethical leaders were not moral exemplars in their personal relations. Franklin D. Roosevelt's wartime leadership and his extramarital affairs illustrate the contrast clearly. To generalize the point: ethical character is fragmented. The classic ideal of the unity of virtue is neither psychologically plausible nor ethically necessary. Presidents, like the rest of us, can have some virtues without having all the others.

Not only can individuals have some without having the others, but also they can display the very same virtue in some situations but not in others. A long line of research in social psychology (beginning with unreliable school children and continuing with insensitive seminarians) has generally supported what is now called situationism (Doris 2002; but see Sabini and Silver 2005). Small and seemingly irrelevant differences in the situation (such as whether you are late for a meeting) may make all the difference in whether you act morally, if moral character is so variable and so mixed, we should be prepared to tolerate some vices in our presidents, and be more discriminating in the virtues we require of them. Some vices may be less serious in public office, and some virtues more essential than in private life. We may, of course, aspire to have a president who has all the virtues, public and private, or as many as possible, but we should recognize that we have to decide which are more important. We should develop a better sense of the priorities of the virtues than is commonly displayed in the media and popular comment on presidents.

Which virtues should have priority? The virtues we should care most about--those that we should require rather than just hope for--are the qualities that make up what may be called constitutional character. "Constitutional" does not refer to the document itself, but to a broader understanding of what qualities officials should have to make the democratic process work well. Constitutional character is the disposition to act, and to motivate others to act, according to the principles that constitute the democratic process. …

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