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Tuesday, November 25, 1997

Does a president's character matter?


Newly published transcripts of audiotapes made by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Seymour Hersh's book about President John Kennedy have again raised the question of whether character matters in a president.

From the various spins put on the tapes and on Hersh's book, The Dark Side of Camelot, it appears the answer depends on the man, his politics and the level of esteem in which a particular president and his party are held by those chronicling the events and writing the history.

In his review of presidential historian Michael Beschloss' new book about Johnson's White House tapes, H.R. McMaster, himself an author of a Johnson-era book, writes in the Washington Times: "The complexity of Lyndon Johnson's character and the turbulence of the period during which he served as chief executive will continue to generate radically different assessments of his presidency." One might substitute Nixon's or Kennedy's name for Johnson's and not cause damage to McMaster's point.

Throughout the review, McMaster returns to the character question and concludes Johnson's character deficiency led to decisions about the Vietnam War that needlessly caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. The tapes, writes McMaster, "reveal LBJ's considerable talent for duplicity," and "a president obsessed with how he was portrayed in the press." The reviewer continues: "Johnson was a profoundly insecure man," and most, damning of all, "it now seems clear that his early approach to Vietnam was shaped far less by the Cold War ideology of containing communism than it was by domestic political considerations."

McMaster says: "If one might draw a general conclusion from this varied collection, it might be that character matters in public office."

In Abuse of Power, professor Stanley Kutler has assembled the most insightful and incriminating evidence yet that Nixon's criminal behavior in office was directly related to his character flaws. Joseph Finder's review of the book in the New York Times acknowledges Nixon's "deeply flawed character" but suggests it was more his ineptitude than his criminality that brought him down. So if Nixon had been more adept, instead of inept, would writers, commentators and historians think better of him? Should Bill Clinton, who has proved incredibly adept at covering up actions related to his character deficiencies, be encouraged?

In the matter of Kennedy, certain historians, friends and his public defenders in the press are spending more time trashing author Hersh than they are worrying about how Kennedy's character shortcomings, including his liaisons with a Mafia moll, might have seriously threatened our national security. Even if Kennedy were able to completely separate his "private" behavior from his public responsibilities as president (which is ultimately impossible because the same lack of character that causes a person to lie and cheat in one area often manifests itself in other areas), does that mean we no longer believe there is something unique about the presidency? Should we feel no qualms about conferring the honor on cads and liars?

Despite Vietnam, Johnson critics praise him for his masterful job in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. For Kennedy's abbreviated presidency, image continues to triumph over substance in the minds of those writing the history and many in the public whose main diet is denial. But with Nixon, Watergate trumps everything and places the man and his policies beyond redemption.

If character matters, it should matter for all and to all. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, character is not a sometime thing. It's an all-the-time thing. Character should matter whether the subject is John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or, perhaps the most ethically challenged president of all, Bill Clinton.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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