MICHAEL BESCHLOSS ON PRESIDENTIAL CHARACTER
TUESDAY 6/4/96

The character issue is once again in the headlines.

beschlossLast Wednesday, Character Above All, produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, was broadcast on many PBS stations. A panel of historians and writers examined the role of character in presidential leadership. The program was adapted from a book of essays of the same name. One of those panelists/essayists was Michael Beschloss, presidential historian and a regular NewsHour contributor. He wrote the effect of George Bush's character upon his presidency.

During the PBS broadcast Beschloss observed:

"I think one thing we worry about is the fact that often times you have a President who is of admirable character, but we only really see that many years later. Americans in 1952 did not like Harry Truman very much. His poll ratings were in the high 20's. It really took only an additional generation or two to really see great qualities that we didn't see at the time. That's something I think we should keep mind as we are looking at Presidents and Presidential candidates in real time at the moment."


Now Michael Beschloss answers your questions on the character issue.


A question from John Connor of Canberra, Australia:

Why do Americans have a fixation with 'character' when it comes to electing presidents? Is it because presidential campaigns give no insight into party platforms and policies so the only thing left to talk about is this vague thing called 'character'?

Michael Beschloss responds:

You're absolutely right. As we Americans select Presidents, we do show a fixation with character that must seem baffling to outsiders -- especially those who live under a parliamentary system! The most basic reason is that our Founders decided that our President should be not only a partisan political leader but also a chief of state. As a result, American voters tend to evaluate Presidential candidates with an emotional intensity that you won't see, for example, in Britain as voters opt for Labour or the Tories. It is very important to us Americans to feel psychologically comfortable with the person who will be our President for four or eight years and that he or she be someone that we can hold up as a model to our children, in the tradition of George Washington. Also, our Presidents wield enormous power -- especially in foreign and military affairs. They cannot be forced out of office by any peaceful method short of the excruciating step of impeachment and conviction. Thus it is vital that we choose wisely. Since, as you suggest, our modern Presidential candidates often run on rather vague platforms, understanding their minds and their values can help us to predict how they might behave once elected.

A question from Donna Danckaert of Severna Park, Maryland:

In your discussions on character that took place in Williamsburg, VA, you bring up countless examples of Presidents who were less than pristine in some character trait. This President did this and that President did that. Are you trying to say that character flaws don't matter. So what if he was a philanderer. He did a good job as President. Is the lesson of the day that character doesn't count if you do a good job???

This also begs the question, where does the next generation learn character? Certainly not from a President in which good character is irrelevant.

Michael Beschloss responds:

The last thing I would say is that character doesn't matter. Quite the contrary! The problem is that in an imperfect world, as we select a President, we are always forced to choose among flawed human beings, each with his or her own mixture of character strengths and defects. Asking questions about values and public and private behavior helps us to decide which candidate has the more promising mix. I would hugely prefer that FDR had been faithful to his wife and more respectful of the Constitution and the truth. His 1932 opponent, Herbert Hoover, was all of these things. But I am glad that through the Great Depression and the Second World War our President was not Hoover but Roosevelt, because I think it was more important that we had a leader who had FDR's public qualities, starting with his extraordinary political sensitivity, courage and vision,

Your second question touches on the point I made earlier to Mr. O'Connor. Because the American Presidency merges the roles of chief of state and political leader, as we consider the mix of qualities in a possible President, we have to give very great weight to the personal qualities that will be held up for younger Americans to emulate.

A question from Amy Svatek of Hampton, VA:

Character, from a historical perspective, can explain a lot about the way a President functions in the office. But the character of any man or woman in the midst of running for the office should not play as significant a role as their views and beliefs.

Well, let me simply ask you Mr. Beschloss, in this campaign year, is it possible for the average voter to have the historical insights and perspective to judge Bill Clinton's and Bob Dole's character in any meaningful way?

Michael Beschloss responds:

Knowing the beliefs and purposes of Presidential candidates is important. But unless you have some understanding of their character, you won't know very much about whether they will take political risks to fulfill those purposes, once elected -- or which of their beliefs will supersede others when they (inevitably) come into conflict. In the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy promised to improve the lot of American blacks "with a stroke of the pen." But, nervous about antagonizing powerful Southerners in Congress whose votes he wanted for other things, JFK did very little for civil rights during his two-and-a-half years in office.

On your second point, we historians have the conceit that you can't really make a serious judgment about a politician's character until many years after he serves; only then do we start gaining enough hindsight and access to information that was hidden while the leader was active in politics. The problem is that American voters have to choose Presidents in real time - not decades later! Therefore the best we can do is to ask the right questions, use what fragmentary information we do have and realize that whatever judgment we make now could years later look silly and inadequate.

A question from Ernest Higgins of Glens Falls, NY:

Why has an individual's character become so important when examining a president? Is it just one more thing to chalk up to Watergate and Vietnam or are the reasons deeper or older?

Michael Beschloss responds:

One reason that we have to think harder about character is the new way that Presidents are nominated. From our Republic's early days until the 1960s, nominees were chosen in conventions dominated by office-holders and party leaders. In most cases, a lion's share of these delegates had known the potential candidates for many years and were well (although not perfectly) poised to screen out people unsuited for the White House by temperament or character. These days, the screening mechanism must be the voters themselves, sifting through the cacophony of what they see and hear. Nominees are chosen usually in early Presidential primaries like New Hampshire. Some voters will have never even heard of one or more of the prospective candidates ninety days or less before the balloting -- and make their choices largely on the basis of what they see of them on television. This is not a very efficient way to detect troubling character traits in a future President.

Just as you say, Vietnam and Watergate also have a lot to do with it. Had we voters in 1964 (I am speaking figuratively, because I was eight years old) known the depth of Lyndon Johnson's determination not to be the first American President to lose a war, we would have been more able to predict the strength of his commitment to the conflict in Vietnam. Had the voters of 1968 known more about Richard Nixon, we might not have been so surprised by Watergate. One result of all of this was that by the 1970ís, Americans became more sophisticated about how character and psychology affects how a President behaves. This was the decade in which we saw psychobiographies published about sitting Presidents like Nixon and Carter that subjected publicly-known information to personality theory in an effort to understand what made them operate. By 1992, it was commonplace that journalists should ask questions such as whether Bill Clinton's abusive stepfather and turbulent childhood home life made him so eager to please everyone that he would he impaired as President. Sometimes this kind of thing has gone much too far, but given the important impact of character on Presidential leadership, I think it is better that we ask too many of such questions than too few.

A question from Bill Peltier of Beulah, ND:

It is true that people overlook certain admirable characteristics in Presidents during real-time analysis. A case in point would be Jimmy Carter. Regardless about how you feel about Carter's presidency, our children will learn about his post presidential accomplishments which in fact are a continuation of his presidential policies. My question to you to you is why does time damage the reputation of an "unmoralistic" president? I am a big admirer of both Nixon and LBJ. Neither man was known for their honesty and integrity. However, both men achieved some amazing and worthwhile events in their tenure. If time can resuscitate a moral president's accomplishments, then why can't time also help the "evil" presidents? For once does the nice guy finish first?

Michael Beschloss responds:

For a time, the reputation of a President like Richard Nixon, who told untruths and skirted the law, will sink as historians and other Americans focus on those character defects that we find abhorrent. But history is a great leveler. As time goes on, scholars begin to remember the good things that are done under such a President's tenure and are fascinated by the tension between good and bad, his reputation rises. This has happened, at least to some extent, with Nixon, who, after his resignation in 1974, was ranked by most historians at the bottom of the list of Presidents, along with Warren Harding and Ulysses Grant.

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