A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.



9 thoughts on “A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics”

  1. Insightful, Barry. Thank you.
    One quibble: I’m not sure it is accurate to say that Hillary has not adhered to moral standards. Too broad a brush and perhaps a page from the conspiracy handbook. Instead, she sometimes winces, ducks, parses, dissembles, misdirects, dodges, denies, and outright fibs when the truth is too painful to face–or when she makes a calculation that owning up is not in her best interest. The reasons for these behaviors are no doubt varied. I have my theories, but they’re pretty mundane. My point would be that in these ways she is rather ordinary and like the rest of us–and maybe that’s why she gets such low marks in trustworthiness. But immoral? Save that one for her opponent.


    1. Harry, I do save most of my invective for Trump, and I meant to make clear that I mostly exempt Hillary Clinton from my accusations. I do believe that she is a woman who has worked all her life for the benefit of others, but I also think she has played it a little loose around the boundaries. We might all build and utilize networks in order to get things done–and not worry much about the look of things–but she could not be more in the spotlight. The appearance of influence peddling is not good. And I do wish she had simply said that she made a mistake around the emails. I’m not into conspiracies, but I am into clarity.


  2. Barry, I’ve been listening to the Washington Post’s podcast series, Presidential, which is an entertaining and well-done summary of American presidential leadership, all 44 cases. The focus of Washington’s legacy, there also, is on the power of his resignation. But your blog is a masterpiece on the subject, not only for being beautifully written, but because it fills a spiritual void and satisfies the soul because it captures so powerfully this horrifying moment in American political life. You have totally nailed my despair over the state of American political culture.

    For me, the joy of a political campaign is the hopeful, vigorous and exciting debate about policy that is creepily absent this election cycle. Policy has been made irrelevant by this monstrosity of a disgusting character called Trump! When all the policy thinking is stripped away from any relevance by the candidate and his crowd, all we have is the raw choice between dignity and disgust.

    We might think that, oh well, it will be a landslide and all will be well. But then there is the horrifying moment when we discover from polls or video, that so many fellow Americans do not even value dignity.

    So the challege is how to restore a common appreciation for a dignified presidency. Can Clinton bring us there? Can she allow us an honest and complete historical record of her presidential leadership? A presidency that is intent on not channeling royalty? A leadership, like Washington’s, that eschews dynastic entitlement, (that some think of as “rigging”)? With a landslide, where is the enforcing market that would demand leader- as-public-servant. Democratic Party loyalists have a huge challenge ahead now that the GOP is thoroughly discredited and neutered. Partisan politics so dominates, that only Democratic loyalists will have the voice and moral authority to insist–in every media outlet that will give venue–that our president embody what you have said so eloquently about Washington: “Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.” May Hillary have the courage to grow and prosper morally, to be more like George. That would be the restorative legacy the great majority ofAmerica yearns for.


    1. Dear Bonnie, I think you’ve got it just right: how can we “restore a common appreciation for a dignified presidency. I think Clinton can bring us there. I hope that she has been chastened by the email scandal–though no particularly scandalous material has been found. But, as you say, she will have to be scrupulously honest and as transparent as possible in the presence of a danger world and in the face of vicious attacks, which will follow anything she does.

      Like you, I think this will require great courage.



  3. Hi Barry. I really enjoy reading your letters. I wholeheartedly agree with the need for more dignity and civility in this presidential race. While I agree with the point you make, I can’t agree with your shining portrayal of George Washington and his moral character. He ‘owned’ enslaved Africans/Black people. Yet he was also the first President of the US. This is the great paradox of humanity – we are all walking contradictions. Do we only measure Washington’s moral character in his role as Commander in Chief and President? Or is there room to consider the moral character of one human being who would ‘own’ another human being and profit from the sweat of another man’s brow?


    1. Charmane, Thanks for both the kind words and the criticism. I agree with you about Washington–and all the Founding Fathers. In a previous blog post I wrote: Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders. As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society. They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union. The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling. What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together. Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go. And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?
      I thought about all this when I decided to feature Washington and worried that I’d glorify him too much. The decision to focus on him had more to do with choosing an iconic figure who the Trump followers couldn’t argue with. No “patriot” could call Washington a Commie or any such name.

      But, in general, I stand with you: the Founding Fathers of the South have never been fully held to account, and we should do that.


  4. Well Barry, now I have a quibble: “No particularly scandalous material has been found” because she destroyed the material. THAT was the scandal! What was destroyed (or hidden—recall that Rose Law firm billing documents were suddenly discovered in a shoe box in her bedroom closet in the White House as they moved out) was sufficiently questionable to her own aides, attorneys, and staff at State, convincing them it was far better to destroy thousands of emails rather than allow them to be seen in the light of day during her campaign. THAT was the scandal.

    Scandalous ACTIONS were found. A transparent leader leaves an untampered public record of work for hire, trusting the legacy to the historians. We were robbed, Barry. They were caught “red-handed in the Watergate” and it wasn’t a mere 18 minutes executed by Rose Marie Woods’ loose left foot. As a Harvard-trained historian you, especially, were robbed. Fortunately you are uniquely equipped to make an eloquent public case for an untampered record going forward, a demand for promised presidential compliance with FOIA! Trust in our democracy depends on it.


    1. Well I never thought that my claims would go unchallenged, but I continue to think that the charges against Hillary Clinton, a woman who has dedicated a lifetime to public work, have been highly trumped up.


  5. All the charges against Hillary are not trumped up, some from radical right, yes, but there are plenty of centrists and liberals critical to dismayed. I deeply admire her public service, but not all the private servicing. Perhaps Charmane captured it best with her reminder about the stark difference between Washington’s public and private activities: “This is the great paradox of humanity – we are all walking contradictions.”


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