Can You Be a Good President If You Aren’t a Good Person?
Every year, usually around Presidents’ Day, Americans talk about the best and worst presidents and debate how to rank their successes and failures. Inevitably, questions about their values and morality come up and we ponder how much weight to give their personal characteristics versus their leadership while in office.
I cohost and produce a podcast with the Center for Presidential History, called The Past, The Promise, The Presidency. This season we are exploring the complex history of race and the president, so naturally we’ve covered the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American story. While we were interviewing Professor Eric Rauchway about Franklin D. Roosevelt, we talked about his flaws and his achievements. Professor Rauchway said, “I’m not sure he was a good person, but I’m not sure he needed to be.” That statement has stuck with me for months.
The conundrum at the heart of that statement helps explain much of my trouble with some of the nation’s past presidents. For example, I know Thomas Jefferson created soaring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence that continues to shape our nation’s ideals today. I know that he influenced the political scene for fifty years, in a manner unparalleled by almost anyone else. And yet, his hypocrisy on pretty much every subject annoys me.
At the same time, even though John Adams was a pretty bad president, I have a soft spot in my heart for him. His upstanding character, unbending morals, relentless honesty, and tendency to put his foot in his mouth makes me chuckle.
I know I’m not alone with this struggle — in fact the complicated relationship between character and presidential legacy goes back hundreds of years. Andrew Johnson’s contemporaries, as well as scholars that study Reconstruction, believed that he could have avoided impeachment if he hadn’t been such a prickly personality. In fact, he could have probably gotten away with his most repugnant behavior, including cozying up to former Confederates and undermining civil rights of recently-enfranchised African Americans, if he had just been less of a jerk.
Yet, this question is not just a popularity contest. Personal character often colors presidential legacy — and I wonder if it should.
The conversation about FDR prompted this deliberation, which makes sense since FDR is a complicated character. As a president, he did extraordinary things. He implemented New Deal policies to ease the suffering of millions of Americans, led the United States to victory in World War II, and helped secure global democracy from the threat of fascism. No small feats.
He also personally signed the order to round up over 100,000 Japanese Americans and did little to save Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe. He shared many of the racial prejudices of his time and was quick to abandon programs for Black Americans when faced with southern resistance.
These failings should absolutely be included in his legacy. He also wasn’t always the nicest person — should that be factored into his memory too?
How about John F. Kennedy? Should his constant philandering, drug abuse, and secrecy about his health play a part in his presidential legacy? Strictly speaking, these factors didn’t affect his diplomacy, his record on civil rights, or his economic policies. But I will admit that I struggle to set aside these characteristics when studying and writing about Kennedy.
Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon present perhaps the most interesting test cases. As Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon took fairly moderate positions on civil rights, willing to go farther than Eisenhower in his support for African Americans. He said terrible things about pretty much everyone, but early evidence suggestions he may have been more open-minded that other mid-century presidents. After losing the 1960 election to Kennedy, Nixon pursued the Southern Strategy, which promoted subtly racist policies to woo southern white voters.
On the other hand, LBJ regularly used the most hateful, vile language. He certainly didn’t believe in racial equality. But when presented with the opportunity to provide legal equality for all Americans, he threw the entire weight of the presidency behind the effort and marshalled all of his legislative talents to secure civil rights legislation.
So what really matters? Is it what was in Johnson’s heart, or what he did publicly? Should we care what he said privately if he did the right thing as president — even if he knew that it would come with significant political cost and permanently divide the Democratic Party for decades? I’m inclined to think that his public actions matter more than what they said to their friends and family.
And yet, when I think about what I value in elected officials, I want them to be men and women of principle. If history has taught me anything, it’s that a candidate can rarely predict the issues that will dominate their time in office. George W. Bush ran on a largely domestic platform, but after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, his presidency was dominated by foreign wars and diplomacy.
We can’t be sure what challenges our presidents will face, but we can try and be sure that they bring good principles to the job. For example, a man might campaign in support of gender equality, but if he treats women with distain and disrespect, how is he going to act once in office? When the going gets tough — as it inevitably does in politics — will he abandon those campaign promises? If they are difficult to obtain and he doesn’t really care deep in his heart, won’t that promise be the first thing to go? I don’t know.
I want my president to be a good person, but history shows that it doesn’t always matter. Some of the best presidents were kind of jerks, while some of the kindest people were terrible presidents.