The United States is a diverse country with millions of people that have many distinct ideologies and ethics. Recent events in the news have brought to the forefront of national attention what Americans view as morally acceptable behavior for public officials. These events have also raised the question: What is the relationship between the personal character of our political leaders and their ability to govern wisely?
It is my opinion that the majority of Americans become concerned about the moral behavior of their leaders only when the country, state, or locality is going through a difficult time economically. Throughout history, and particularly in the case of President Clinton, if the economy is doing well and the country is in a general state of security, most citizens are willing to look the other way on the morality of their leaders. I want my leaders to have a strong moral character, but I also think that when it comes to carrying out the duties of an elected office, personal character does not affect a person s ability to govern wisely.
Throughout the rich history of the United States, many leaders have been benchmarks for morality and patriotism. Unfortunately, there have also been public officials who have abused their office and taken advantage of the trust and faith bestowed upon them by the public. The interesting notion is that some of the most respected leaders in American history did not honor the same set of values that the public did.
Thomas Jefferson, revered as one of the greatest presidents of all time, owned slaves and had a child by one of them. His face is on Mt. Rushmore although he engaged in activities that were not consistent with the values of the average American. President Jefferson was able to expand the size of the United States by securing the Louisiana Purchase from France and easing world tensions in northern Africa and Europe, even though he behaved in a manner that was not conventionally respectable. Another example of an official who behaved reprehensibly in his private life but still governed effectively is President Franklin Roosevelt, the definitive symbol of the twentieth century. The American people elected him to the presidency four times although he was unfaithful to his wife. Despite the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer, he was still able to create Social Security, revive the economy from the Depression, and lead the country through World War II.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal has focused the attention of the media and the nation on President Bill Clinton s character and his efficacy as president. His character, or the lack of it, has not affected the economy. Throughout the entire scandal, the domestic economy of the United States has continued to perform at record levels, and unemployment and inflation are at levels last seen in the 1960s. The character of President Clinton has not affected his ability to govern, but it has taken away from time he could have been working on the problems of the United States. There might not be a relationship between character and the ability to govern, but behaving in a vulgar manner and exhibiting immorality affects the credibility of the nation, state, or locality. The character of Bill Clinton has not affected his job performance, but it has affected how other countries view the United States and has also diminished the respect many Americans have for the presidency.
American history class teaches students about the many leaders of our country and how they dealt with adversities and with their own personal demons. The aforementioned presidents were able to continue to govern although their character could be viewed as corrupt. The Presidents and member of Congress discussed in the following paragraphs were not, in my opinion, able to govern effectively because their lack of character interfered.
President Richard M. Nixon would have been regarded as one of the greatest foreign policy presidents in history if he had not been entangled in the quagmire that was the Watergate scandal. President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Red China and was finally able to secure an end to the Vietnam conflict, but his accomplishments will forever be overshadowed by his involvement in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up. If President Nixon had displayed more character, he would have made the decision not to authorize the break-in or order his subordinates to commit illegal acts. The cover-up and ensuing media attention totally consumed President Nixon much as Vietnam had President Johnson. Ultimately, Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal.
President Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps the best example of how greed and lack of personal character can affect job performance. Grant implemented a spoils system much like that of President Andrew Jackson. He appointed old war comrades to his cabinet and friends to high-level staff positions. These people, not the president, ran our country for eight years. President Grant had conflicts of interest in military matters and in the oil business as well; furthermore, his political subordinates were making decisions the president should have been making, and consequently the Grant administration was notorious for greed and corruption. Because personal gain and corruption consumed President Grant and his administration, nothing was accomplished for the country, and that is why Ulysses S. Grant is considered one of the no-name presidents.
Many congressmen have been forced to resign because of their illegal and unethical acts while representing the people of their districts. Most recently Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who was due to become the Speaker of the House of Representatives, resigned after it was made public that he had an extramarital affair. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, resigned and later spent time in jail for his involvement in misusing the House of Representatives Post Office and also for conflicts of interest involving tax legislation.
It is difficult to find a politician who was too honest for his or her political good, but one such rare person is former President Jimmy Carter. He is considered one of the most moral and ethical Presidents of the United States but was unable to govern wisely because he had too many moral principles. Cynical as it may seem, the President of the United States needs to be able to show ethical flexibility occasionally to get the job done. A rare president can balance the line between being too moral and not moral enough. President Carter s moral values prohibited him from being able to negotiate and make deals in foreign policy and domestic policy; his character did not help him to govern wisely, but it has made him one of the most respected persons in the world today.
When discussing morality, it is important to remember the two aspects of it– public and private. Citizens seem to have a hypocritical view of personal character. They condemn the corrupt behavior of public officials but often display the same or worse character in their own private lives. Throughout my years of education and being involved in politics, I have concluded that character does not matter to people until it is exposed. The American people have the power to select moral leaders, but the majority of them ignore their ethics and vote for the candidate that will help them economically. Good or bad, most Americans vote their wallets, not their religions.