Private Lives, Public Duties

Emily Bazelon, writing in Slate, makes the case that Rudy Giuliani's mistreatment of his wife and children should be a political issue. "It's not only the religious or the uptight that can be put off by an utter lack of personal morality in a presidential candidate," she writes. (Glad we cleared that up.) She goes on:

A past like Giuliani's betrays a level of self-indulgence that, if nothing else, suggests that more fireworks are in store and that the show will be long-running. We'll all be strapped into front-row seats. Giuliani's psychodramas may or may not tell us about the sort of leader he'll be, but we've already been forced to think enough about the sort of man he is. (The prospect of President Hillary Clinton and four more years of her marriage leaves me with a similar sense of dread.) All elections are trade-offs. But when a candidate starts off with a loutish and loathsome past, chances are good that his time in office will be marked by missteps and distraction and that he'll be more irritating and less effective as a result.

I seem to recall a few conservatives - okay, maybe all of them - making precisely this argument about Bill Clinton without very many liberals joining the chorus, and I'm sure that Bazelon's discovery of the character issue in Giuliani's case has nothing to do with his party affiliation. (Perish the thought!) That said, I don't think having liberal voices as well as conservative ones making the case that character counts contributes all that much to our understanding of the issue. Of course character counts: The question is how it counts, and there we see through a glass darkly, if at all.

In hindsight, for instance, it's clear that certain of George W. Bush's personal attributes - his intellectual incuriosity, his sense of personal calling, his abiding loyalty to friends and allies, his stubborness when challenged - have led his Presidency into disasters. But it's perfectly possible to imagine a Presidency in which those same qualities in the chief executive turned out to be great advantages that led to great successes. Loyalty, stubbornness, a sense of mission - all of these can be positive attributes in the right circumstances, and even Bush's incuriosity could have proven a better quality in a wartime President than, say, Bill Clinton's obsessive-compulsive intellectualism. That these traits worked out badly for the country is apparent, but only now, just as the only way to know for sure how Rudy Giuliani's various personality traits will affect his Presidency would be to elect him President and see what happens. Sure, his psychodramas might engulf the country, as Bill Clinton's often did - but electing Presidents without obvious inner demons gave us Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, while a morbid, moody depressive was arguably our greatest Chief Executive. The pressures of high office work in different ways on different temperaments - alcoholics and philanderers sometimes rise to the occasion and sometimes don't, and the same seems to go for tee-totalling, uxorious, psychologically well-balanced types. At certain junctures, a self-consciously normal guy like Gerald Ford is the man you want; at others, you want a hard-drinking romantic like Winston Churchill. It's just tough to know what sort of character will suit the times until the times are over.