Politics: Hail to the Crook?

Clinton, Harding, and the politics of reputation


Voters this year have been presented with a presidential choice based largely on character: This is the season of the politics of reputation. For evidence, one need only examine the summer's best-seller lists: Riding high was Unlimited Access, the book by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich that tells, among other tales, the poorly sourced story that the president sneaks out for midnight trysts with sexy celebrities. Other summer books, such as Roger Morris's Partners in Power, appeared to deepen the moral indictment of the first family; yet more thick character examinations are due out before the election.

Such front-page furors as the FBI files case, coupled with the issues of Whitewater, Travelgate, and the rest of the Clinton crew's notorious repertory, indicate the role that personality plays in this election. It seems that at the least the Republicans will keep it part of the campaign's atmospherics: They see Bill Clinton's reputation as vulnerable to attack. People do not believe Clinton, claims the GOP; Bob Dole goes so far as to say they would not trust him as their children's babysitter. With 63 percent of respondents to a summer Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll saying they were "not confident" of "Bill Clinton's honesty and truthfulness," Republicans have room for attack.

In politics, reputation is the coin of the realm. Even more than the proponent of a set of policies, a politician is a public figure: a man or woman with whom the public develops a meaningful, if mediated, relationship; what sociologists term parasocial interaction. Americans feel that they "know" Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. When Michael Dukakis's running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, skewered Dan Quayle by saying that he was no Jack Kennedy–a comparison Quayle had himself invited–the remark was powerful because his audience appreciated the differences in reputation between Kennedy and Quayle.

American politics is structured as a competitive game, so there will always be those who will look for an opening to make their side look good, or to besmirch the opposition. This is so taken for granted that we label it "politics as usual." A president's reputation is at the mercy of both critics and supporters: The two parties jockey with each other in building and destroying reputations.

In time political leaders develop–or accrue–reputations to which both friend and foe have contributed. Bob Dole, for example, is seen as the elderly, disabled, Washington player; the consummate insider who lacks both vision and oratorical power. The president is known as an ethically challenged baby boomer, a gregarious, "compassionate" pol whose policy concerns are grounded in calculations of self-interest. We filter the policy pronouncements of our leaders by what we know of their character.

Yet political reputations, as George Bush can tell us with chagrin, can fluctuate rapidly. While a politician is active, his reputation can be burnished by his actions and the attentions of his friends, or can be smeared by the activities of his cronies. The reputations of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon both attest to the fact that even after the sunset of one's political career, virtuous deeds coupled with active public relations can change the public's view–at least in some measure. While professional Nixon haters will never alter their opinion, by the time of his death the formerly disgraced ex-president was given an honorable send-off.

Eventually, after politicians, their agents, and their enemies have left the scene, historians take their turn in solidifying presidential reputations, writing the textbooks that teach students which leaders deserve honor. Historians have great weight in shaping our collective memory. Thus, while President Woodrow Wilson was roundly disliked by the American public at the end of his presidency (the Democrats wanted no part of a third term for Wilson), historians, sympathetic to Wilson's background as an academic historian and his quixotic quest for world peace through the League of Nations, have elevated him into the pantheon of the near-great presidents.

Historians have their biases–most describe themselves as liberals and Democrats–leading Republicans and conservatives to suggest that the judgment of history is stacked against them. Indeed, since the realignment of the parties in 1856, Democratic presidents have fared better with historians than Republicans. Of the Republican presidents only Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower are rated above average in polls of historians. No elected Democrat since the Civil War is rated below average; even Jimmy Carter attains an "average" rating in such polls.

To understand the power of reputations, consider the president perceived to be America's worst leader. That president, judged by the evaluations of the public and historians, is Warren Gamaliel Harding. Those who savor presidential reputations admire what historian Eric Goldman refers to as the "grandeur" of "the contempt in which his memory is held." Why is Harding thought of so poorly, and what might this say about our collective memory of the former Arkansas governor currently in the White House? How have reputational entrepreneurs transformed Harding into an abject failure?

The standard reading of Warren Harding is that he was an unintelligent man, too trusting of his cronies, too weak as a leader, uncaring about corruption, and too passive for a nation that needed leadership in the years after World War I. Yet this reading, widely accepted today, contrasts mightily with how contemporaries viewed Harding.

At his sudden death in August 1923, Harding was an exceptionally popular chief executive, considered likely to be re-elected. He had achieved a string of real accomplishments: creating an open, accessible administration, establishing the Bureau of the Budget, negotiating the first international reduction of armaments at the Washington Naval Conference, sponsoring tax cuts that spurred the economic expansion of the 1920s, supporting the end of economic and political (though not social) racial discrimination, and pressuring the steel industry to end the 12-hour day. Despite the reputation of the administration as scandal-ridden, Harding himself was honest.

But Warren Harding had the misfortune to die at the wrong moment–immediately prior to the exposure of the Teapot Dome scandal–and thus was unable to defend himself against a mob of debunkers. Teapot Dome provides a stark contrast with recent major scandals, such as Irangate or Watergate, or even Filegate. The scandal involved the selling of federal oil leases in the desolate Teapot Dome area of Wyoming without competitive bidding. Former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall subsequently was convicted of accepting bribes from oilmen–he was the only government official implicated in the scandal–and Harding was unaware of his malfeasance. A few other scandals followed, including discovery of Harding's illegitimate daughter and his White House trysts.

When the scandal broke in the months after Harding's death, things looked bleak for the Republican Party. Democrats rode the scandal hard, and believed that they would have an easy time in the elections of 1924. However, they had not counted on President Calvin Coolidge's shrewdness. Rather than defending Harding and his associates, Coolidge distanced himself from the controversial figures of the Harding administration. While Harding had the reputation as a clubby politician (part of the "Ohio Gang"), encouraging the public image of a scandal-riddled administration, this charge was implausible when applied to the starchy, upright Coolidge.

None of this helped poor Harding. His erstwhile supporters melted away in the political heat, or were sent packing by Coolidge. Silent Cal himself refused to dedicate the Harding mausoleum in Marion, Ohio, well after the 1924 elections. Harding was at the mercy of those politicians, journalists, and eventually historians, both scholarly and popular, who wished him ill, attempting to use his failure to denigrate the conservative/libertarian policies of the Harding/Coolidge administrations. Even the release of Harding's papers in the 1960s, which led some serious historians to attempt a revision of Harding as a solid leader, has not helped Harding: His reputation remains mired in melodrama and malfeasance. Indeed, many contemporary libertarians and conservatives remain unaware of the achievements of those administrations that more than any others of the 20th century attempted to limit the growth of government, preserving a vigorous private sector and economic growth.

The fragility of Warren Harding's reputation speaks to the dilemmas of William Jefferson Clinton. The parallels between the two are, if imperfect, nevertheless striking. Harding belonged to a regional political machine outside of the national orbit; Clinton, too, was an outsider. Harding was bedeviled by his home-state cronies, facing suicides, scandals, and a general sense of sleaze; that is the Clinton administration in a nutshell. Harding was a glad-hander who liked men and loved women; that is the Clinton persona. Harding's wife was disliked by many and reviled as imperious (if you think Hillary has it bad, read what historians–to say nothing of historically minded gossips–say about Florence Harding); that is the first lady. Harding couldn't stop talking (or, to use Harding's own term, "bloviating"); neither can Clinton. Harding was personally honest, but unable to judge the character of those around him; Clinton's judgment awaits the verdict of historians.

Republican operatives are doing their best to ensure that the public remembers all the ethical challenges that the first family has failed. Faced with an opponent who has co-opted many issues traditionally associated with the GOP, they turn to "character." But the balance of Clinton's strengths and faults has yet to be taken; it may be that, for some, even his failings are appealing.

Clinton does have advantages that Harding lacked: the continued, if anxious, loyalty of his party, the sharp pens of partisan journalists, and links with those academics who will eventually write history. Furthermore, short of being felled by a Big Mac attack, Clinton will be able to defend himself for decades to come, leading the charge to recover and bolster his own reputation (with the help of millions of post-White House federal dollars).

Has the public taken Clinton's somewhat sleazy reputation into account? Will voters be willing to re-elect him despite–or even because of–the entertainment value of the scandals that seem to blossom in Clinton's Rose Garden? Clinton is not quite the "Teflon" president that Ronald Reagan was; sleaze sticks to him. But Clinton has shown a talent for changing the political subject from his own problems to some other issue, and he is presiding at a time of economic prosperity.

He may yet be given a pass because he has charm. Some may even find his character to be endearing: that of a cheery rogue, not an evil crook; and we give our rogues considerable leeway. Faced with a frequently dour Bob Dole, our presidential Tom Sawyer has evident powers of seduction. Future historians will find in him a rich subject, debating whether citizens of a society where excuses were readily available for any malfeasance found it comforting to have a president who had so much in common with many of those he led.