Victor Davis Hanson: The American People Care More About Political Ability than Personal Character in Their Presidents

Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from an interview with Victor Davis Hanson conducted in October 2016. It has been modified for clarity.

I wish I could say that character is an absolute criterion — in other words that, to take one example, what Donald Trump has said about women, which I think is pretty reprehensible, should disqualify him as President. But then I ask myself, by what contemporary standard are Donald Trump’s words disqualifying? By what past standard are Donald Trump’s words disqualifying?

The American people were perfectly willing to accept that their president violated the trust of employer and mentee when Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with a subordinate, Monica Lewinsky, and then he lied about it under oath. Then he was impeached, and then he was disbarred. All of that did not result in a loss of confidence by the people; I think he left office with a 62 percent (62%) approval rating. Or when President Clinton gave pardons, it was pretty clear that the pardons he gave were predicated on the money he received in contributions, especially in the Marc Rich case, and the Puerto Rican Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN) terrorist case [paywall].

What I’m getting at is that the past bar was pretty low. And then I look at the contemporary, and that is, did Hillary Clinton not do things as bad as Donald Trump’s language? That is, making $150 million while Secretary of State, and her husband was basically selling influence via his wife as you see from the foundation; or committing the type of behavior that put four-star generals either in jail or ruining their careers for disclosing classified information; or the kind of really disturbing revelations that her campaign hired thugs and tried to commit voter fraud in Ohio. All of that, does that mean that now she should step down?

And I don’t have an answer for that because it seems to me that the public long ago accepted that their politicians were not just flawed characters, but largely amoral characters. And they were more interested in three or four other issues: Was the foreign situation stable? Was the economy growing? Were social services viable? And if they were, then they would say, “I don’t really care about their character. I don’t really care about their ethics or morality.” The American people ceased to see a connection between character and policy outcomes, even though I did. To put it differently, the American people, it seems to me, say, “I don’t necessarily believe an adulterer, a liar, a cheat is necessarily a worse president than somebody who is not a liar, a cheat and an adulterer.” Personal character and political success are seen as two different skills. And that’s why we have these flawed personal characters that become President.

And some of them finish office okay, some of them don’t. Jimmy Carter was a morally impressive individual, in the sense of his personal appetites. I don’t think he committed adultery. I don’t think he abused drugs. I don’t think he drank. I don’t think he lied as much as other politicians. I don’t think he enriched himself before, prior, or after office. But I do think he was sanctimonious, naive, incompetent and did a lot of damage overseas in a way that Richard Nixon was a far better President, and probably Bill Clinton as well was a better President. Both of those people had far less character, and that’s just the way it is. And so while I don’t agree with the American people, I can understand where the public is coming from in its voting patterns that delink character and leadership ability. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is.

Featured Image Source: White House Photo/Pete Souza

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