Morality and the Presidency

The recent op-ed in Christianity Today calling for the removal of President Trump from office because he is morally unfit to lead the country renews an age-old debate about morality and the presidency. In a perfect world, we would prefer that our presidents be morally upstanding individuals with principles and values worthy of emulation. Not all of our presidents meet this standard, which invariably forces tradeoffs between the personal attributes that we admire and those that we cannot. This question of morality, however, must be juxtaposed against the first job of government: to protect the citizenry above all else.

The Trappings of the Electoral Process

Politics is a blood sport and that, more than any other single attribute, is why it may not attract the most morally upstanding among us. First, in order to run for the presidency of the United States one must possess an immense ego; it is, after all, a contest for the most powerful office in the world. Second, the candidate must be cutthroat with his tactics or have some political operatives willing to engage that behavior in his stead. For all of the gentility of George Herbert Walker Bush, let us not forget that he had Lee Atwater in the trenches during his first (and only successful) presidential campaign and a more hardnosed, albeit effective, political operative will not soon pass our way again. Third, the world is chock full of brutal tyrants who make no secret of their desire for world domination. These are not individuals won over with a “hug” or by the banning of Christmas lights. To the contrary, when these bad actors glare across the table at the occupant of the Oval Office, they are looking for signs of weakness, an opening they can exploit, someone who is just one scintilla less ruthless than they are. They do not expect to find saints, and God help us all if they should ever find one. Fourth, the electoral process is a winnowing process, one of elimination. It is a process that requires candidates to constantly seek out, identify, and exploit any weakness in their opponents. It may be bloodless warfare, but it is warfare nonetheless. Pacifists need not apply and if they do, their candidacies are certain to be short-lived.  

Finally, the traits that we value in our presidents, at least the successful ones, are paradoxically likely to be considered flaws in our friends and neighbors. There is a certain timber in these individuals that we may admire at the negotiating table only to recoil from at the dinner table. These individuals must of necessity possess warrior traits. When friends complain to me about President Trump’s questionable moral character, I remind them, somewhat in jest but only somewhat, that the attributes they may seek in someone they date are not necessarily the same attributes they should want in a president. The paramount question for President Trump and for anyone else who may one day occupy that office is whether they can keep the country safe.

The Ill-Fated Purity Test

In the last Democratic presidential debate, candidate Pete Buttigieg made a statement that is perhaps the only thing he has ever said or will say that I actually agree with. In response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s condemnation of him for soliciting donations from billionaires in “wine caves” filled with “crystals,” Mayor Pete responded that the senator should not be “issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”

This is a natural prelude to the question of the morality of our former presidents. The Democrats (and some Republicans) can fault President Trump for his purported moral failings, but in the process they force an uneasy comparison with former presidents. President Trump has been accused of “womanizing,” but such behavior was rampant with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. What is more, even if the accusations against Trump are true, one would be hard-pressed to argue that they somehow threatened the security of the United States or compromised his presidency. This was not the case with John Kennedy.

Kennedy was purportedly on the precipice of being compromised as a result of his cavorting with an East German communist spy (and others with connections to organized crime) while he was president. Had this been publicly disclosed it would almost certainly have ended his presidency. It could be argued that Kennedy fell in the only way that allowed Camelot to rise. That image inspired a generation. President Kennedy did not die in disgrace, but had he lived he may well have been forced to resign the presidency in disgrace (or suffer defeat in the 1964 election). Unlike the Trump presidency, the failings of the mainstream media during the Kennedy years lay not in reporting what did not occur, but in failing to report what did. Journalistic sins of omission are sins nonetheless and no less damaging to the democratic process.

Bill Clinton is among the most intellectually and politically gifted individuals ever to serve as president. It is a great tribute to the virtues of this country that a child born in Hope, Arkansas and raised in an abusive home can graduate from Georgetown University and Yale Law School and rise to the most powerful office in the land. His story is the antithesis of heredity succession. Clinton was not impeached because he compromised the presidency, he was impeached because he committed perjury. A felony is not necessary for impeachment, but it is sufficient.

Richard Nixon would have been impeached and likely convicted in the Senate had he not resigned the presidency. Like Clinton, his actions did not compromise the presidency per se, but he was culpable in a felonious act. That said, Nixon was a patriot who was willing to put his country first. He was provided with evidence of illicit behavior on the part of the Kennedy campaign that was sufficiently credible to challenge the results of the 1960 presidential election, an election decided by less than one hundred thousand votes, but for the good of the country he chose to stand down. We can only imagine what Nixon must have been thinking when he sat in the audience on that frigid January day in 1961 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was administered the oath of office. How many politicians campaigning for the presidency today (or in 2016) would have acted this selflessly?

No Place for Sainthood

The United States is the only country to date to have used nuclear weapons in wartime. President Truman’s decision to end the war in the Pacific by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been condemned by many as morally questionable, if not reprehensible, despite the fact that the Japanese were the aggressors and his decision probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and countless Japanese citizens. Presidents must make tough calls with limited information in the heat of battle and Harry Truman did just that. It is far too easy for military historians to sit back in the “cheap seats” with the benefit of hindsight and contemplate whether the war in the Pacific could have been won in a timely manner with more “humane” tactics.      

President Ronald Reagan is widely credited with winning the Cold War and in so doing assured the triumph of capitalism over communism. Nonetheless, his Hollywood years could hardly be characterized as morally upstanding. He would say (and historians would concur) that the presidency made him a better man. If we take a step back, look closely and put our biases aside, we may begin to see traces of that very same transformation in Donald Trump.

Our nation’s history is rife with extremely gifted, but imperfect if not morally flawed individuals ascending to the presidency. The truth is that our presidents are rarely saints, nor should we necessarily want them to be. Tradeoffs between moral character and effective leadership may be necessary and each of us must ask ourselves if this is a price we are willing to pay. In an ideal world, I may prefer a president possessed of impeccable moral character, who is beyond reproach, but when push comes to shove and it invariably will, I would be willing to sacrifice some moral purity to ensure that our national language is not Chinese, German, Japanese or Russian. Because saints don’t win wars -- warriors win wars.

The recent op-ed in Christianity Today calling for the removal of President Trump from office because he is morally unfit to lead the country renews an age-old debate about morality and the presidency. In a perfect world, we would prefer that our presidents be morally upstanding individuals with principles and values worthy of emulation. Not all of our presidents meet this standard, which invariably forces tradeoffs between the personal attributes that we admire and those that we cannot. This question of morality, however, must be juxtaposed against the first job of government: to protect the citizenry above all else.

The Trappings of the Electoral Process

Politics is a blood sport and that, more than any other single attribute, is why it may not attract the most morally upstanding among us. First, in order to run for the presidency of the United States one must possess an immense ego; it is, after all, a contest for the most powerful office in the world. Second, the candidate must be cutthroat with his tactics or have some political operatives willing to engage that behavior in his stead. For all of the gentility of George Herbert Walker Bush, let us not forget that he had Lee Atwater in the trenches during his first (and only successful) presidential campaign and a more hardnosed, albeit effective, political operative will not soon pass our way again. Third, the world is chock full of brutal tyrants who make no secret of their desire for world domination. These are not individuals won over with a “hug” or by the banning of Christmas lights. To the contrary, when these bad actors glare across the table at the occupant of the Oval Office, they are looking for signs of weakness, an opening they can exploit, someone who is just one scintilla less ruthless than they are. They do not expect to find saints, and God help us all if they should ever find one. Fourth, the electoral process is a winnowing process, one of elimination. It is a process that requires candidates to constantly seek out, identify, and exploit any weakness in their opponents. It may be bloodless warfare, but it is warfare nonetheless. Pacifists need not apply and if they do, their candidacies are certain to be short-lived.  

Finally, the traits that we value in our presidents, at least the successful ones, are paradoxically likely to be considered flaws in our friends and neighbors. There is a certain timber in these individuals that we may admire at the negotiating table only to recoil from at the dinner table. These individuals must of necessity possess warrior traits. When friends complain to me about President Trump’s questionable moral character, I remind them, somewhat in jest but only somewhat, that the attributes they may seek in someone they date are not necessarily the same attributes they should want in a president. The paramount question for President Trump and for anyone else who may one day occupy that office is whether they can keep the country safe.

The Ill-Fated Purity Test

In the last Democratic presidential debate, candidate Pete Buttigieg made a statement that is perhaps the only thing he has ever said or will say that I actually agree with. In response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s condemnation of him for soliciting donations from billionaires in “wine caves” filled with “crystals,” Mayor Pete responded that the senator should not be “issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”

This is a natural prelude to the question of the morality of our former presidents. The Democrats (and some Republicans) can fault President Trump for his purported moral failings, but in the process they force an uneasy comparison with former presidents. President Trump has been accused of “womanizing,” but such behavior was rampant with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. What is more, even if the accusations against Trump are true, one would be hard-pressed to argue that they somehow threatened the security of the United States or compromised his presidency. This was not the case with John Kennedy.

Kennedy was purportedly on the precipice of being compromised as a result of his cavorting with an East German communist spy (and others with connections to organized crime) while he was president. Had this been publicly disclosed it would almost certainly have ended his presidency. It could be argued that Kennedy fell in the only way that allowed Camelot to rise. That image inspired a generation. President Kennedy did not die in disgrace, but had he lived he may well have been forced to resign the presidency in disgrace (or suffer defeat in the 1964 election). Unlike the Trump presidency, the failings of the mainstream media during the Kennedy years lay not in reporting what did not occur, but in failing to report what did. Journalistic sins of omission are sins nonetheless and no less damaging to the democratic process.

Bill Clinton is among the most intellectually and politically gifted individuals ever to serve as president. It is a great tribute to the virtues of this country that a child born in Hope, Arkansas and raised in an abusive home can graduate from Georgetown University and Yale Law School and rise to the most powerful office in the land. His story is the antithesis of heredity succession. Clinton was not impeached because he compromised the presidency, he was impeached because he committed perjury. A felony is not necessary for impeachment, but it is sufficient.

Richard Nixon would have been impeached and likely convicted in the Senate had he not resigned the presidency. Like Clinton, his actions did not compromise the presidency per se, but he was culpable in a felonious act. That said, Nixon was a patriot who was willing to put his country first. He was provided with evidence of illicit behavior on the part of the Kennedy campaign that was sufficiently credible to challenge the results of the 1960 presidential election, an election decided by less than one hundred thousand votes, but for the good of the country he chose to stand down. We can only imagine what Nixon must have been thinking when he sat in the audience on that frigid January day in 1961 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was administered the oath of office. How many politicians campaigning for the presidency today (or in 2016) would have acted this selflessly?

No Place for Sainthood

The United States is the only country to date to have used nuclear weapons in wartime. President Truman’s decision to end the war in the Pacific by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been condemned by many as morally questionable, if not reprehensible, despite the fact that the Japanese were the aggressors and his decision probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and countless Japanese citizens. Presidents must make tough calls with limited information in the heat of battle and Harry Truman did just that. It is far too easy for military historians to sit back in the “cheap seats” with the benefit of hindsight and contemplate whether the war in the Pacific could have been won in a timely manner with more “humane” tactics.      

President Ronald Reagan is widely credited with winning the Cold War and in so doing assured the triumph of capitalism over communism. Nonetheless, his Hollywood years could hardly be characterized as morally upstanding. He would say (and historians would concur) that the presidency made him a better man. If we take a step back, look closely and put our biases aside, we may begin to see traces of that very same transformation in Donald Trump.

Our nation’s history is rife with extremely gifted, but imperfect if not morally flawed individuals ascending to the presidency. The truth is that our presidents are rarely saints, nor should we necessarily want them to be. Tradeoffs between moral character and effective leadership may be necessary and each of us must ask ourselves if this is a price we are willing to pay. In an ideal world, I may prefer a president possessed of impeccable moral character, who is beyond reproach, but when push comes to shove and it invariably will, I would be willing to sacrifice some moral purity to ensure that our national language is not Chinese, German, Japanese or Russian. Because saints don’t win wars -- warriors win wars.