Who Cares About a President's Private Life?

[Note: This piece ran on the op-ed page of The Tennessean for February 2, 1998, p. 11A, under the title "Yes, Virginia, personal morality does matter."]

Seymour Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his investigative journalism that turned a bright light on the dark events of the My Lai massacre. Later he wrote The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a respected writer with solid credentials.

Near the end of 1997, Hersh released a book about John F. Kennedy. Titled The Dark Side of Camelot, it attacks the personal character of President Kennedy and debunks the myth of Camelot. If JFK created the modern political genres of media image and spin doctoring, Hersh is determined to slice through them to the truth.

It is amazing how many details about the Kennedy presidency have leaked out during the past quarter century. Thus much of Hersh’s book is simply a log of things generally known: his insatiable sexual appetite, his use of Secret Service personnel to sneak women into the White House when Jackie was away, his relationship with major figures in organized crime, his plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro, his bungling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, etc. The remainder of the book makes charges about a long-rumored first marriage, venereal disease, drugs, election stealing, and the blackmailing of a United States president for political and financial favors.

All the while, Kennedy was being portrayed as a devoted family man. His marriage to a sophisticated woman was idealized. A not-so-ignorant-as-it-pretended-to-be press turned its head and refused to publish anything that might tarnish his image. Then his assassination in the streets of Dallas immortalized him for an entire generation of Americans. Sentimental and laudatory volumes like Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy, RFK’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and O’Donnell and Powers’ Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye generated a greater mystique than a completed presidency could possibly have bestowed.

Hersh’s book has been uncritically accepted in full by some and unilaterally denounced by others. Most people suspect that the truth is somewhere in between. The question raised by this last group is this: Should factors of personal character and behavior be considered relevant to a president’s ability to lead a nation?

First, bear with me through a few analogies. Their purpose will be clear directly. Then, think about some reasons why private behaviors must count in evaluating anyone’s right to receive public trust.

Why was Pete Rose booted from baseball and declared ineligible for its Hall of Fame? Being a gambler doesn’t mean you can’t play ball. Being a gambler doesn’t mean you have bet on your own games, rigged a game, or ever altered your own performance on the field.

Why was Kelly Flynn discharged from the United States Air Force? Her adultery and later lies about it did not destroy our nation’s defense system. Getting tied up in a relationship mess doesn’t mean you can’t fly a B-52, handle nuclear weapons responsibly, or be trusted to defend your country.

Why did Richard Nixon resign the presidency? Involvement in "political dirty tricks" doesn’t mean you can’t lead a country. Getting caught covering up an embarrassingly stupid mistake doesn’t mean you can’t reopen relationships with China, strengthen a nation’s defenses, or make a good State of the Union speech.

For that matter, why did I give an "F" to the student who turned in a term paper that was simply the retyping of a journal article? Cheating on a writing assignment did not mean he was not the brightest student in the class, in command of class material, or capable of doing independent research.

So does one’s personal moral behavior influence his or her ability to lead a family, company, or nation? Should character be a criterion of leadership ability? Ought such things as lying, adultery, or conspiracy to have disqualified JFK from office? If voters had known his private actions before rather than after his election, should it have made a difference in our choice of him as president?

I can think of no justification for an ethical human being answering "No" to the first three of these questions. And the only circumstance under which I can imagine saying "No" to the final one would be judging him to be the lesser of two evils in a choice between candidates. Here is why . . .

Reason One: Scandal in one’s private life makes him or her vulnerable to being used, blackmailed, or otherwise exploited by people who learn those secrets. Some claim this happened with JFK in his selection of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. Hersh alleges a $6.5 billion defense contract to General Dynamics was awarded to defuse a threat of sexual blackmail. Even if these things didn’t happen, they could happen in the life of someone with such skeletons in his closet. Major League Baseball, the United States Air Force, and educational institutions act with this presumption. It would be very strange and would require clear ethical justification to exempt politicians from it.

Reason Two: Integrity is a singular virtue with multiple branches in one’s life experiences. If you had $100,000 to invest, I dare say you would not trust someone to manage your portfolio whom you know to be cheating on his wife or lying to his employer on a variety of matters.

Reason Three: Confidence in one’s personal morality is the only reliable index to what we could expect by trusting someone with civic responsibility. Bank tellers, notaries public, pastors, judges, physicians, university presidents — all have to provide credible evidence of good personal character in order to qualify (i.e., receive certification, ordination, licensure, etc.) for these positions.

Reason Four: The President of the United States must be expected to "play by the rules" enforced on the rest of the country’s citizens. In totalitarian states or under a monarchy, it is assumed that the head of state will not be answerable to the same laws as ordinary citizens. Not so in our form of government. Both the common understanding of what it means to be an American and court decisions say that government officials are forbidden to abuse power. They may not use government property or employees to further their personal gain. It is wrong for them to coerce people. It is not legitimate for them to break a law or to encourage others to do so.

To summarize, I believe Aristotle was correct about the moral life. He held that morality needed to be so completely internalized that right behaviors would flow immediately and effortlessly. In other words, good character would essentially be a matter of "habit" in one’s life. Without undue deliberation or struggle, an ethical person could be expected to act consistently in both private and public, in "unguarded" moments and in the public eye. His understanding states the general intuition all of us harbor, even if we find it difficult to articulate.

The discussion of America’s experience with John Kennedy is important for historians, political scientists, ethicists, and persons on the street. It forces all of us to face the crucial issue of the relationship between personal character and public trust. And it is doubtful that the press will ever give another public figure a pass on his or her private life. Its embarrassment in retrospect over the JFK era has, if anything, made it super-vigilant to the point of intrusiveness into the lives of public figures.

This could soon prove to be something other than an analysis of the past. It may well be the issue of relevance for a nation about its sitting president.

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