Presiential Character and Power

Peter W. Schramm

February 1, 1998

January 26, 1998. As I write the nation is in a frenzy. "The Crisis of the Clinton Presidency" is the general theme, and the flood of grave and hilarious questions raised about the deeds and the words of the president seems endless. It is impossible to say where the country will find itself by the time you read this, though even supporters of the president are already speaking of impeachment or resignation. What can be said is that these events remind us of what many Clinton critics have always known and what the national media have consistently denied or ignored:

In politics, and most especially with a president, character counts.

Why our opinion leaders have for the past six years denied this truth is a difficult question to answer. In part, at least, it has to do with a post 1960’s ideology that attempts to disengage morality, virtue, and public policy. In part it has to do with a disposition that inclines to make politics only a matter of expertise in public policy. Get to the troubles of the country, deal with the economy, satisfy the needs and passions of the people, let the president be the administrator of the centralized bureaucratic welfare state. To do this, you don’t need angels.

The trouble is that such a separation between character and politics is inevitably bad for politics. It is not a separation that our best presidents (of any party) or the Founders would ever have made.

One of the most difficult tasks of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was the creation of the presidency. The Framers understood that in creating the office of the president, in which all executive power would be lodged, they were creating something that was both necessary and dangerous. It was necessary because in order for a more perfect Union to be formed an energetic government was necessary. A government based on reflection and choice also had to be energetic else good government would not result.

However, they also knew that executive power could easily be abused—regardless of the attempted legal limits placed upon it. They didn’t have far to look to see if this was true. A glance in the direction of any king would do as proof of the potential danger. It should surprise no citizen if I were to make the assertion that an American president has more authority and power today than any monarch in the world.

The framers would not have created the presidency as they did if they did not already have someone in mind who should hold it. The presidency, more than any other Constitutional office, was created for one man, a certain kind of man with a certain disposition and character. They wanted a man that could be trusted.

The sound establishment of that office, and its future value to republican government, depended almost entirely on who would first hold it, and what kind of habits of rule he would establish. It was assumed that his actions and habits would set precedents that would—it was hoped—later become custom and even men with lesser virtues could hold the office without hurting republican government.

Pierce Butler, a delegate to the Constitutional convention, said that the powers of the presidency would not have been as great "had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president, by their opinions to their virtue."

General Washington’s character was already well known by the time of the Constitutional Convention. He had led the rag-tag revolutionary army to victory against the most powerful and best trained military force in the world. He was the de facto leader of the Revolution; the Continental Congress was quite ineffective. It is because of this that a later president was able to say that "in the absence of any real government," Washington was "almost the only prop of authority and law."

George Washington, though highly intelligent, was not a well educated man. All the other Framers around him were better educated. But his disposition and experiences on the frontier enabled him to cultivate certain habits and virtues that became invaluable to both him and his country.

He was courageous, dedicated, loyal, full of integrity. This honorable man was a believer in self-government. He understood that a man had first to govern his passions—and we know that his temper was dangerous, but controlled—before he could argue in favor of the community having the right to self-government.

We now say that George Washington is the father of our country. We say this less because of specific political actions that he took, than because he was able to be the first chief executive under a Constitution that was meant to uphold the principles of republican government. He was able to do this because he was an upstanding and honest man who was worthy of his fellow citizens’ entire trust. He was as true as steel. He was a man who never abrogated responsibility. He always made his own interests and needs second. He is the father of the country because he was the father of his own life first.

His character was so near perfect that even by 1777 an American was able to write of Washington: "Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a god." That character and that reputation only increased by the end of his second term as president.

Well, this isn’t the age of idolatry. We don’t need or want superhuman figures. George Washington was a great and good man. His life reminds us that without such a man, we may not have been able to establish a regime of laws that make the need for great men rare. But this does not mean that we can do without good men. We have a right and a duty to demand that a president be good and honest.

Whatever may happen in this current crisis—and I do not doubt that much will have happened between the time I write this and the time you read it—we citizens will have been reminded of a sound old maxim: In politics, character counts.