How Much Does Character Count in a President?

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Originally published 6-13-05

Mr. Reeves is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and the author of A Question of Character : A Life of John F. Kennedy

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some liberal defenders of Bill Clinton, including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued that a man's personal life has no bearing on presidential duties. That tune changed, however, when Republican contender George W. Bush refused to discuss his possible involvement with drugs during his youth. Character was suddenly a highly significant issue. Liberal columnist Sandy Grady exclaimed that"Bush's self-righteous silence is not only phony but dangerous to his 2000 campaign."

Good character is a major quality we need in a chief executive. And it has long been so recognized. Thomas Jefferson paid tribute to George Washington's"perfect" character, noting especially his integrity, prudence, dignity, and sense of justice. Every presidential election in our history has contained references to the vital link between character and the White House.

Character is what a person really is, at the deepest level. (Personality may or may not be an accurate reflection.) The concept has a venerable heritage, being discussed in the Old Testament, in Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Tacitus, the New Testament, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Good character begins with integrity, defined as a"firm adherence to a code of especially moral values," values that are thought to be high and true. Good character begins with integrity. Is the person in question honest? And it includes such qualities as compassion, generosity, prudence, courage, loyalty, responsibility, temperance, humility, and perseverance.

Good character is about a lot more than sexual conduct, even though that is part of the equation. Why trust the nation's leader when his own wife doesn't?


Character is largely formed at an early age. But it can continue to be developed and shaped throughout life. Chester Alan Arthur spent most of his life in corrupt machine politics and was removed as head of the New York Custom House by judicious Rutherford B. Hayes. But when summoned to the presidency after James Garfield's death, Arthur was able to grasp the gravity of his office and summoned the moral power to administer his office with dignity and integrity. John F. Kennedy entered the White House with a lifelong record (albeit unknown to the public) of deceit, lechery, and recklessness. But once his father, the dominant figure in his life, became enfeebled, JFK began showing signs of becoming a man who could empathize with others and show a measure of compassion, even toward his much-deceived wife. This development, cut short by the assassination, was reflected in his administration's policies toward race and peace during 1962 and 1963, and was instrumental in defusing the potentially disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis.

Character always matters, especially in the White House. What presidential candidate boasts of his crookedness, adultery, and habit of lying? All of the major presidential candidates have recognized a basic truth: What you are will almost always have an impact on what you do.

Character counts in decision-making. I've illustrated this elsewhere in the case of John F. Kennedy with his actions in the Bay of Pigs invasion and his secret war against Fidel Castro. His reckless behavior with women, drugs, and mobsters betray character faults that might have cost the nation dearly.


For better or for worse, presidents have always been thought to be moral exemplars. This image was created by George Washington, and while there have been presidents who have fallen far short of his standards, the great majority have done reasonably well on this score.

The moral tone of the American people is formed in part by the vision and conduct of the nation's most prominent and powerful individual. The figures chiseled in stone at Mount Rushmore and the many monuments visited by millions annually in the nation's capital illustrate the public's respect for leaders who have exhibited the full range of qualities normally associated with good character. Bill Clinton must bear the responsibility for much of the deep cynicism about politics and politicians exhibited by my students. And the ramifications of his squalid conduct surely go beyond politics, contributing to a moral decay in this country that may eventually prove to be perilous.

Of course, saints cannot reach the Oval Office. American politics has always required a measure of accommodation and artful deception that the most scrupulous find objectionable. The necessity of fund-raising, especially in recent years, has particularly limited the possibilities of men and women of outstanding character even to run for the presidency. Still, good people are always available, and the avenues of political opportunity have not been entirely closed to them.


Good character isn't everything, of course. A successful chief executive also needs intelligence, experience, political skills, good advice, and a lot of luck. Jimmy Carter had character and intelligence but fell woefully short in the other categories. Calvin Coolidge had good character and a fine mind, and he was highly popular in his day. But historians have faulted him for lassitude and lack of political skills, and his failure to see the needs of his nation and the world.

Good character, while not everything, is the vital framework for a successful and honorable presidency. The president today is the most powerful person on the planet, and it is important that the conduct of the occupant of the Oval Office be based on integrity, prudence, responsibility, courage, and the other virtues widely acknowledged to be beneficial for centuries. We should make every effort to discover who our presidential candidates really are, and support those who can be trusted to exemplify our highest ideals. We may have to select the lesser of the evils, but that is wiser than denying that character is important.

Democratic candidate Bill Bradley argues that character will be the major issue in the campaign of 2000, and he feels eminently qualified to serve."Every day" in his youth, his mother and teacher"began a class with a lesson about some character trait-honesty, integrity, courage, trust." Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot commented,"Bill Clinton came to the White House as the ultimate policy wonk. But the corrupt soul of his presidency has ironically elevated character above ideas, the personal above policy."

As I have written elsewhere,"A knowledge of what the president sees as right and wrong, good and bad, will give us a fuller and more accurate picture of the stature of the man and the nature of his leadership." Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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More Comments:

Dave Livingston - 1/10/2004

Lee Hodges spouts hedonistic nonsense when he says, "A person's sex life, as long [it] does not involve rape, child molestation, or anything nonconsensual, is their private busuness." According to the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Justice, the body of law to which those serving in the armed forces are subject, conviction of adultry results in an officer being kicked out of the Army at the least. More likely he will find himself pounding rocks in Leavenworth military prison.

Lee Hodges - 6/20/2003

Mr.Reeves' comments tell us far more about himself than about JFK, the presidency, and presidential greatness. Like American culture as a whole, he refuses to face the subject of sex honestly.

Humans are sexual beings. Many, if not most, people are attracted to more than one person. This does not change when people get married and promise to be faithful to their spouse. Rightly or wrongly, infidelity is a normal part of human existence--and always has been. Whether someone is sexually faithful to their spouse does not demonstrate whether they are trustworthy and honest in other ways. Mr.Reeves' argument "Why trust the nation's leader when his own wife doesn't" is laughable. One can point to numerous great leaders who had many extramarial affairs--Henry II of England, for example. Mr.Reeves cites George Washington as a model of his concept of "character". Even Washington is believed by some to have had a mistress--Sally Fairfax. And as far as we know, Richard Nixon was faithful to Pat Nixon--yet he was one of the most duplicitous and untrustworthy Presidents ever.

Furthermore,what makes Mr.Reeves such a great person that he is qualified to define what constitutes good character in others? The words he uses--"honesty", "integrity", "temperance", and so
forth--are so general, and open to selective reasoning nad interpretation, that virtually anyone, including Adolf Hitler, could claim to be a person of character. And those who preach about "character" usually do so very selectively. The same conservatives who argued that President Clinton lacked "character" because he lied about Monica Lewinsky had no problem with the lies of President Reagan, Oliver North, John Poindexter, et cetera in the Iran-Contra affair. On the contrary. When they are asked what they most admire about Reagan, Reagan's supporters often site his "character". Yet the Iran-Contra scandal involved life and death matters--selling arms for the release of hostages--whereas the Monica Lewinsky scandal was simply about sex. President Clinton's opponents will say "But it wasn't about sex! He lied under oath!" Well, North, Poindexter, and others in the Reagan administration also lied under oath. Where's the outrage over this?

Mr.Reeves suggestion that Americans should assess the private lives of presidential candidates is morally problematic in itself. A person's sex life, as long is does not involve rape, child molestation, or anything nonconsensual, is their private business. This does not change if they run for the presidency. The public has no "right to know" about something that will not affect them. Mr.Reeves talks about moral values--the right to privacy is surely a moral issue.

Mr.Reeves should stop living in a moralistic dreamland and look at the world, and human beings, more realistically. Doing so is critical to a fair assessment of who will make a good president and a good leader.