The political rivals for the presidency and vice-presidency talk a lot about the policies they like and those they don’t like, usually everything their opponents like. They also talk about their personal lives, and bring out their wives and children to demonstrate what swell family men they are. Is this important? What do we need to know about the personal lives of our top political candidates?
At the party conventions, both Romney and Obama used their wives to demonstrate their character as good fathers and husbands to voters. Their argument was simple: good family men make good presidents.
Some personal facts would seem to be very important for the voters to know about. Herman Cain’s tendency to sexually harass women might say a great deal about what kind of man he is. It might have been logical for conservative voters to reject Newt Gingrich as a candidate, because his personal life involved multiple divorces, discussing a divorce with his first wife while she was in the hospital, and having an affair with his future third wife years before divorcing his second. Yet those facts had little effect on his popularity during the Republican primaries of 2011 and 2012.
How much do marital fidelity and sexual morality matter? Jack Kennedy’s extra-marital flings while he was President were silly, dangerous, and immoral, but they don’t appear to have affected his working life as political leader or commander-in-chief. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s family morals could hardly be worse. Had he been a loyal faithful husband, Al Gore would have swept into the White House in 2000. But those weaknesses had little to do with his presidential policies.
Presidential affairs seem commonplace. Both FDR and Dwight Eisenhower appear to have affairs. Thomas Jefferson sired children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. But if being a loyal husband has little relationship to the work of being President, perhaps too much emphasis is placed on candidates as family men.
On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the Gulf of Tonkin brought us a divisive war, just as George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s reluctance to tell the truth about Saddam Hussein put us in an unnecessary war we could not win. Dick Nixon’s dishonesty overshadowed his domestic and foreign achievements, and brought his Presidency crashing down. Lying in office to the American people has a much stronger relationship to bad policy decisions than sex in the office.
How do the characters of our current candidates appear to Americans?
Some past behaviors have dogged Mitt Romney’s candidacy. A great deal was made of his strapping a carrier with the family dog to the roof of their car during a 12-hour vacation trip in 1983, by both his Republican rivals and by Obama supporters. In 2012, a much earlier incident came to light, in which a teenage Romney led a group of his private school friends in an attack on a fellow student they thought was unconventional, even gay.
In that case, it is certainly worth asking how much abhorrent behavior fifty years ago matters today. Perhaps more insight into the character of Romney the candidate is his claim that he doesn’t remember this incident, which is hard to believe.
Paul Ryan recently said that he ran a marathon in under 3 hours, a remarkable athletic feat for anyone. Only when that claim was ridiculed by runners, did Ryan backtrack to say that he had made a mistake. Apparently Ryan believed, like John Kerry before him, that making up things about his physical prowess would win him some votes.
Obama opponents have collected every one of his public statements which could be attacked as false. Many of those were predictions he made about the economic future when he took office. There appears to be no particular incident of bad behavior in Obama’s past which has risen to the level of importance of Romney’s gay-bashing or Ryan’s marathon falsehood.
Americans have more concerns about the honesty of Romney-Ryan than they do about Obama-Biden. The Pew Research Center asked for one word to describe these four men. For Romney, words like distrust, fake, liar, dishonest, and phony came up more than twice as often as similar words for Obama. Two of the most common words for Obama were incompetent and failure, words not used much to describe Romney. For Joe Biden, the negative words disparaged his intelligence, such as idiot, buffoon and clown. In Ryan’s case, there were many more negative words which doubted his honesty: sneaky, opportunist, disingenuous, phony.
The admission in August by a Romney pollster named Neil Newhouse, that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” may be responsible for Americans’ distrust of Romney. A July Gallup poll showed that Obama’s character is rated much more highly than Romney’s by the voting public, who was asked which candidate was better on the following characteristics: likable (Obama won 60 to 30); understands Americans’ daily problems (Obama won 50 to 39); honest and trustworthy (Obama won 47 to 39), and can get things done (Romney won 46 to 41).
From an historical perspective, the most important characteristic may be “honest and trustworthy”. Too bad that both camps seem wedded to the use of distortions and even outright falsehoods in their campaign arsenals.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2012