Tuesday, November 25, 1997
Does a president's character matter?
By CAL THOMAS
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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