Where’s Captain Renault when you really need him? When last seen, he was leaving Casablanca with Rick Blaine to go fight Nazis. But we could certainly use his unique brand of indignation and hypocrisy to express our moral outrage at the latest revelations about Donald Trump.
Of course, it’s all well and good to say how “Shocked—shocked!” we are to learn the Donald talks dirty about women. But really—we shouldn’t have been too surprised. Donald Trump has been the subject of the gossip tabloids for decades and a major reality television star for over a decade. He’s never been shy in expressing his “thoughts” on women or anything else… How can anyone be surprised at the latest “revelation?”
But the hypocrisy runs deeper. For years the Democrats have defended the Clintons, arguing that Bill’s private conduct and the accusations made against him—the adulteries, the alleged harassments, the alleged rape—and Hillary’s defense of him, including her alleged efforts to destroy his “bimbos,” (the term used by Bill’s staff to refer to those women who claimed to have had affairs by him) should not be counted against him. He should only be evaluated on the basis of his public policies as President. On the other hand, the Democrats now say that Trump’s personal life should be used to evaluate him.
And the Republicans are just as bad in their own way. Condemning the Clintons, and extolling Christian family values, they nonetheless nominated Trump in the first place, knowing full well that his personal attitudes and approach to life are as out of step with the Bible’s prescriptions as they say Bill Clinton’s are.
In sum, each candidate’s supporters say their candidate must be judged only on his or her policy prescriptions and performance, while saying the other candidate must be judged on his or her personal life. It’s the logical outcome of a trend to separate the public from the private in judging the fitness of politicians—especially those who want to be, and sometimes actually become, President of the United States.
Historians, political scientists, journalists, and large segments of the public have believed, for decades, that private virtue is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee good public performance in the White House. Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton are all considered morally flawed: Cleveland, when still a bachelor, may have fathered an illegitimate child, and the others were unfaithful to their wives. Yet Cleveland, Kennedy, and Clinton are widely praised for their achievements, and Roosevelt is considered one our greatest of Presidents.
On the other hand, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush were paragons of private virtue. Yet in the judgment of presidential scholars they run the gamut from the mediocre to the disastrous in the White House.
But this year’s mudslinging shows that the separation of private virtue from fitness for public office may be backfiring. The activists of each party, in their zeal to avoid being too judgmental of their own party’s candidates, and evidently unaware of their own hypocrisy, have produced two of the most personally unsavory politicians ever to win their parties’ presidential nominations. Each candidate’s personal flaws has provoked attacks and counterattacks from the opponent’s activists which reduce the public’s capacity to think rationally of the challenges America faces or have faith that whoever is elected president can meet those challenges. Moreover, the campaigns may have created animosities which will inspire each side’s supporters to continue to pursue vendettas against each candidate, no matter who wins the election. Expect criminal charges to be pursued against next month’s loser, impeachment for the winner, and reduced efficiency and effectiveness in the White House and throughout the government as the election aftermath continues to poison the country and create distractions to which our nation’s leaders must give priority over problem solving.
So what’s to be done?
For the time being, we must resign ourselves to another month of charges and countercharges concerning Trump’s alleged predatory practices—whether sexual or business– and Clinton’s alleged persecution of her husband’s alleged “bimbos.” But at least the charges and countercharges reflect the recognition of each candidate and his or her respective supporters that one can no longer neatly separate the private from the public—if in fact that had ever really been possible at all. And knowing that a candidate’s private virtue may be used to attack him may lead activists in both parties to be more careful in whom they support, and to consider private virtue, if not sufficient, than at least more necessary than previously to produce an administration whose leader can concentrate on what’s best for the country and not merely on how to save his or her own skin from intense public personal attacks, criminal charges, and impeachment. And history tells us we need not settle for mediocrity, at best, in selecting a privately virtuous candidate. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman all combined private virtue with public fitness to produce great presidencies.
The day after the 2016 debacle comes to an end, and well before the “winner” is inaugurated next January, we will begin reading of candidates jockeying for 2020. However strong the understandable tendency to hold Mike Pence and Tim Kaine guilty by association with their running mates, we can start by thinking that either, or both, may be worthy of our support somewhere down the line. Say what you will about them, but neither is likely to make us “shocked—shocked!” by what we may yet learn of his personal life. Each has too much character, not to mention a record of ability and achievement, whatever one thinks of his policy preferences.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.