Does it make sense to evaluate the personal morality of politicians while judging their suitability for high office? Should a candidate’s pattern of ethical—or unethical—behavior, influence our choices in a fiercely contested election?
These questions have become painfully relevant given the likelihood that both major-party presidential nominees in 2024 will display an abundance of character flaws that attract attention and inspire fierce debate in the months ahead. History shows that virtue and integrity can be essential for the office-holders we select—even more so than for those who occupy other positions of conspicuous responsibility.
Consider a brief but telling 1901 encounter between the vacationing President William McKinley and a photographer who had scheduled a session with the chief executive at his home in Canton, Ohio. As the journalist approached, the president hurried to hide his half-finished cigar and made a memorable declaration. “We must not let the young men of this country see their president smoking,” he emphatically proclaimed, displaying conscious concern for his position as a public role model.
Three generations after that, another, very different William—Bill Clinton—took possession of the White House. He also enjoyed his cigars but used the stogies in a far less respectable context during his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. One of the most glaring defects of the Clinton administration involved the utter lack of McKinleyesque concern about the way his personal conduct might influence those tens of millions who felt deep admiration for both the president and the institution of the presidency.
To embrace the idea that elected leaders should be honored exclusively for their policy achievements and that questions of character mean nothing to the quality of their leadership is to reduce their jobs and their impact to a bloodless, almost mechanistic two dimensions. Historians often cite James K. Polk as a rare example of a chief executive who managed to keep each of his major campaign promises, but he’s seldom rated as “great” or “near great,” thanks to the dry, insecure, quarrelsome and self-righteous temperament he brought to the nation’s highest office.
Consider the American presidents who have inspired the most intense and durable admiration over the last 235 years. None of them count as flawless or altogether beyond reproach, but those we remember most fondly and honor most consistently displayed personalities that struck their contemporaries and descendants as decent, honorable, and often noble. Among the Rushmore presidents, it’s easy to scorn Thomas Jefferson for his probable abuse, following his wife’s death, of the enslaved Sally Hemings. But like the other faces carved into the mountainside, the scope of his interests, his vaulting ambitions for the nation he helped to create, and his ability to collaborate with others of profound intellect and insight mark Jefferson as an individual of substance, even grandeur.
Which brings us to the leader generally recognized as the greatest of them all: Abraham Lincoln, or “Honest Abe” as his appreciative contemporaries consistently anointed him, even as a very young man. Richard Carwardine, a Lincoln biographer at Oxford University, wrote: “The nickname ‘honest Abe’ was not the fabrication of party publicists but a mark of the universal respect in which he was held as a lawyer of scrupulous honesty. This reputation spilled into the political arena, where he was widely perceived as just and fair-minded in debate and adverse to gaining an advantage by foul-means.”
In fact, his character earned so much respect that even his political adversaries acknowledged his integrity and stature. “I shall have my hands full,” an uneasy Senator Stephen Douglas commented when notified that the Republicans had designated Lincoln to challenge him for his seat in 1858. “He is the strong man of his party—full of wit, facts, dates—and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.”
Lincoln earned this admirable reputation because in his speeches, letters, and private conversations he consistently emphasized the overriding significance of personal morality and ethical conduct above any other standard of success. In 1850, in notes that he made for a talk to aspiring attorneys, he wrote: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”
No one can reasonably doubt that Lincoln’s personal qualities—including his ability to work constructively with one-time adversaries, and to preside over a “team of rivals” in his cabinet and a squabbling, newly organized Republican Party—contributed immeasurably to his success in leading America through its most menacing and heartbreaking ordeal.
The notion that there is anything dated, outmoded, or irrelevant about an ongoing association between personal morality, depth of character and political achievement amounts to one of the most dangerous and dubious misunderstandings of the 21st century. Part of the problem is the reductionist tendency to focus on sexual restraint and marital fidelity as the prime measure of personal morality, by which standard some of our most revered leaders (FDR and JFK, not to mention Clinton and Donald Trump) fall far short of traditional standards. Yes, a stable, honorable, long-term marriage indicates qualities like reliability, predictability, communication skills, and the flexibility to compromise. Those can be formidable assets for any political endeavor. But those abilities and personality strengths can be demonstrated as conclusively by relationships outside of marriage as well as within the home, reflecting basic reasonableness as much as romance does.
As we assess our potential presidents, we should value a gift for friendship as well as for fidelity, and honor the capacity to control oneself even more than track records of controlling others. We also need to remember that morality means not only the absence of vice, but the presence of virtue—something our most admirable past presidents have abundantly displayed.
One of them, the second chief executive, John Adams, dined in the White House for the first time in 1800 and proposed a prayer in a letter to his wife Abigail. “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it,” he wrote. “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
And may that hopeful prayer continue to be answered.
Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God’s Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.