Back during the Monica Lewinski scandal, when the Republicans tried to make Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans seem like the end of Western civilization, I had an interesting conversation with a right-leaning corporate executive about the relationship (or lack thereof) between character and political leadership.
The conversation went something like this:
Corporate Executive: The President has disgraced himself. He must resign.
Me: I don’t see it that way.
C.E.: The President has lost his moral authority.
Me: What do you mean when you use the phrase “moral authority”?
C.E.: A leader must be judged a good person. If he is not judged to be good as an individual, then what he advocates is not seen to be good. People won’t follow someone they believe is flawed either ethically or morally.
Me: Really? Suppose I am lost in the woods and come across two people. One is a sex offender who knows the woods. The other is a bona fide saint, but he has no idea about the woods. Should I follow the clueless saint through the woods just because he’s a good guy? I think that would be a classic fallacy in reasoning. I think they called it the fallacy of ad hominem.
C.E.: You can’t trust someone who lacks scruples, even if he has greater knowledge or experience. This is not a matter of logic. It’s a matter of judgment and prudence.
Me: Judgment? I don’t even understand this issue as being about leading and following. Compared to others—for example, Republicans—Bill Clinton and I share certain policy goals. We don’t agree on everything, but I agree with his objectives more than with those of Republicans. So I want him to be in power to advance these policies that we share. I really don’t care if he has sex with his interns. It’s irrelevant to me. I don’t care about his personal morals. I care about what he wants to do in his official capacity. The difference between you and me is that I never suffered under some delusion that Bill Clinton was a moral leader of the people.
C.E.: I’m disappointed to hear you say that. Good leadership depends on moral virtue. A man who is good will make good judgments. A bad one will make bad judgments and do bad things.
Me: Political leaders are not moral role models as far as I’m concerned. If I want a moral role model, I will look for one. Like maybe Jesus, or Gandhi. Or someone in my family whom I think led a good life. Politicians are there to do a job: advance policies. Their job is not to serve as my role model. Try to imagine how much pride, egocentrism, narcissism and irrational confidence is required to be an effective politician. I find the idea that any one of them could serve as a role model to be ridiculous. The only questions for me are these: First, do I agree with the policies that they are advancing, and second, do they have the required political skills? In my experience, people who are morally pure usually don’t have very strong political skills. This is because they tend to see everything in black and white and are often uncompromising. That renders them ineffective in making policy, because that process usually requires bargaining, dealmaking, pragmatism and compromise. I never expected Bill Clinton to be a moral role model. In fact, he was a known philanderer even before he stepped into the White House.
The conversation went on this vein without resolution. And while I put up a good fight, I retained a certain doubt about my own argument. I didn't believe that political leaders were or could be role models. But did I really think they should not be held to higher standard?
As the parade of morally and ethically challenged politicians has continued throughout the intervening election cycles, I have often remembered this conversation. We can think of Clinton as the elder statesman of moral shortcomings, but now there are so many other fallen “role models” to consider: Spitzer, Edwards, Weiner, Sanford, Petraeus... the list goes on and on. There are probably so many more that we don’t know about. And within our body politic, there is as much debate as ever about the relevance of personal character to leadership.