Should politicians’ character flaws, then, bar them from office, especially the oval office? Or does this set an impossibly high standard? Probably. Presidential aspirants reach for the highest office to satisfy some yearning for greatness or even immortality. The historian Richard Hofstadter said that politics for a majority of office holders, and particularly those obsessed with getting to the White House, is a form of vocational therapy. Grandiosity or convictions about standing apart from ordinary men seems to be a central component of the country’s most ambitious politicians. Ambition, of course, is not without its virtues. But when politicians, and especially presidents, let their need to win eclipse the larger good, as has so often been the case, it makes presidential striving a national problem.
None of this should erase the many achievements of the most flawed of our office holders. Despite a cover-up of a variety of health problems that might have dissuaded voters from putting him in office and his reckless womanizing in the confines of the White House that could have undermined his moral authority and possibly led to his impeachment, Kennedy performed brilliantly in the Cuban missile crisis and saved the world from a nuclear war. Lyndon Johnson cut many corners in his long political career, but it did not deter him from some of the most constructive domestic legislative accomplishments in the country’s history—most notably the civil-rights and voting-rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Likewise, despite Nixon’s infidelity to fundamental legal standards that forced his resignation, he decisively advanced the national well-being in his dealings with China and the Soviet Union.
James Madison said it best when he asked in the Federalist Papers, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”