The Presidential Character

Surveying the electoral scene of the moment summons to mind Henry Adams’s mordant observation that the progression of presidents from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant was a sufficient refutation of the theory of evolution. What would Adams think of our current candidates?

I’m with John about the utter shamelessness and hypocrisy of the left over revelations and allegations of Trump’s bad behavior. It’s disgusting, to use one of The Donald’s favorite adjectives, as well as being transparent. But you could see this coming 100 miles away. There has been talk for months that the left would roll out “War on Women 2.0” against Trump, but the brazenness of this attack is amazing even for the shameless left.

First, the NBC News “Access Hollywood” tape, which credible reports say was being held in reserve for maximum effect, comes out on Friday. Then in the debate on Sunday, Anderson Cooper pressed Trump hard on the question of whether he had ever had inappropriate or unwanted physical contact with any women. It was the most obvious set-up since O.J.’s lawyers asked Mark Fuhrman whether he’d ever used the “n-word.” What was Trump supposed to say? Maybe that he behaved to the presidential standard of JFK and Bill Clinton? That might have been fun. Take the Fifth Amendment, as Mark Fuhrman subsequently did in the O.J. trial? You can’t take the Fifth Amendment in a presidential campaign (unless you are an aide to Hillary Clinton).

You absolutely knew what was coming next, and the New York Times obliged with the story two days ago about several women “coming forward” to make allegations about Trump. The allegations seem plausible to me, in general if not in every detail, but as the cliché goes, “I question the timing.” The Times sure was able to bring this story out quickly. Usually they spend a long time on a story of this magnitude, which makes you wonder whether this came to them pre-packaged, or have decided actually to follow their executive editor’s advice to take sides openly in this election.

Is there anything here that we didn’t already know about Trump? I think I’ve been even-handed about Trump in my serial analysis of him here on Power Line, and I will have more to say between now and election day both pro and con, but for today it suffices to say that Republicans could have avoided this disaster if they took more seriously the question of character in selecting a nominee.

By coincidence, I wrote an essay on presidential character for ISI’s Intercollegiate Review, not with Trump in mind specifically (I wrote it months ago, when the GOP contest was still in doubt), and it came out from behind the subscription paywall today. Here are a couple relevant passages, but I invite you to read the whole thing:

The character of the individuals who seek the presidency cannot be understood apart from the character of the office itself—both what it was designed to be and what it has become. The Founders would be appalled by the modern presidency, which bears little relation to the office the framers of the Constitution created.

The behavior of most modern presidents and candidates—personally ambitious politicians making populist appeals and offering lavish promises, often impossible to fulfill, of what they will do for the people—is precisely what the Founders wanted to avoid when they established the presidency. . .

Our inflated expectations of presidents, together with inflated presidential promises to solve the nation’s problems, probably have contributed to the loss of public confidence in the federal government. The single most salient fact of the past fifty years may well be the survey results showing that public confidence in the ability of the federal government to perform well has declined dramatically, from nearly 70 percent in 1960 to less than 20 percent over the past twenty years. The one sustained reversal of this trend came during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and it is probably not a coincidence that Reagan’s core message, stated directly in his first inaugural address, was that the American people themselves, and not Washington, would fix the nation’s serious problems. . .

After Barack Obama—after three generations of progressivism only slightly interrupted by the Reagan years—the conservative president we desperately need requires a paradoxical combination of boldness and restraint. The president will need to be bold in challenging the runaway power and reach of his or her own branch, against the fury of the bureaucracy, its client groups, and the media. This boldness is necessary to restore the proper kind of restraint that a republican executive should have in our constitutional order.

It is not clear where such a person might come from. The supply of people who understand this seems very short indeed.