Overly optimistic in 1998

Politics | Hopeful explanations from 20 years ago as to why character and compassionate conservatism mattered in national politics
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 1/06/18, 10:31 am

The dozen years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001 formed a hopeful time in U.S. national affairs. In 1992, though, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision smashed hopes of rolling back Roe v. Wade, and Bill Clinton gained election as sexual harasser-in-chief.

Six years later, I optimistically thought we could reemphasize the importance of character in leadership, and move beyond the equation of compassion and cash in poverty fighting. I wanted to explain these two ideas to secular audiences.

Two news stories provided opportunity. Early in 1998, in a nationally televised news conference, President Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” DNA evidence on a blue dress later showed that was a lie, but his liberal defenders said it didn’t matter. They said character was unimportant compared to Clinton’s policy positions and his appointment of pro-abortion justices. I delved into history to explain to business readers of The Wall Street Journal that sexual scandals are significant.

Late in 1998, Texas Gov. George W. Bush overwhelmingly won reelection and became the GOP presidential front-runner on a “compassionate conservative” platform. My task was to explain that it’s wrong to measure compassion by the size of federal welfare expenditures—churches and community organizations could help the poor more effectively. This was heresy to many New York Times readers, but its editors gave me space to explain.

Twenty years later, it’s apparent that I was overoptimistic.

Sex and the presidency

The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 1998

Compartmentalization: That was the conventional Washington answer up to last week. Repeatedly we were told that a president’s personal life has no relation to his public activities. But a study of presidential history shows a link between lying about adultery and lying about other matters.

Woodrow Wilson is a classic example. Until age 50 he was an upright if slightly dull Presbyterian professor and long-married university president. Then he had an affair with Mary Hulbert Peck, which he covered up so well by paying her off financially that he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and president in 1912, both times running as a candidate of private and public integrity. Adultery and its coverup contributed to a theological transformation in Wilson. He spent the rest of his life liberating himself from other commandments that he now regarded as suggestions.

The new Wilson broke faith with the American people in three ways. In 1916 he won reelection with the effective slogans “He kept us out of war,” while privately telling Cabinet members, “I can’t keep the country out of war.” One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the U.S. into World War I.

Then he lost the peace by refusing to compromise with Senate leaders who agreed to adopt the League of Nations treaty only with reservations that would preserve American sovereignty. Finally, when Wilson had a major stroke that left him unable to exercise the duties of the presidency, he refused to step down. Instead he and his aides pretended that he was able to work, and his second wife was effectively the president during Wilson’s last year and a half in office.

Or consider the case of Warren Harding. His sexual coverup (he hid his affairs with Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton) presaged his administration, one of the most corrupt in American history. In contrast, Jimmy Carter’s faithfulness in marriage, so great that he needed to confess publicly that he had lusted in his heart, was also a marker: His administration would be open and above-board, even if not entirely competent.

Journalists and voters who do not scrutinize candidates’ sexual flings are negligent.

Franklin Roosevelt successfully covered up affairs with Lucy Mercer and Missy Le Hand, and used the same techniques to cover up affairs of state. Turner Catledge of The New York Times told friends that Roosevelt’s first instinct was always to lie; sometimes in midsentence he would switch to accuracy because he realized he could get away with the truth in that particular instance. FDR, for instance, ran against Herbert Hoover in 1932 promising to reduce the size of government, before turning around and launching the New Deal. Roosevelt was a great president, but the doublespeak he first developed while hiding an affair grated on reporters who were not yet accustomed to presidential falsehood.

On the other hand, Grover Cleveland showed how private truth telling led to public conscientiousness. In 1874, 10 years before he was elected president, Cleveland fathered a son out of wedlock. He gave the child his last name and arranged for adoption. This became an issue in the 1884 campaign, with Republican opponents chanting, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” But this didn’t sink his candidacy. Cleveland by then had become known as the “veto governor” of New York because of his willingness to stand up to special interests, and he became the “veto president,” opposed by some but respected for his honesty.

A flawed presidential character is not always bad for the nation. John F. Kennedy’s success in keeping unreported his record-setting flow of young women into Senate bedchambers and then the White House probably led him to think he could get away with other quasisecret activities, such as the Bay of Pigs and numerous Castro assassination plots. And yet the emotional detachment he showed in using women as he did made him into a fine Cold War poker player. He could coldly go to the brink of nuclear war without being unnerved by a normal man’s sensitivities.

Amid charges and countercharges, we need to remember two points if the likelihood of future presidential scandals is to be reduced. First, there is no immoral equivalence (“everyone does it”). One guest on Geraldo Rivera’s show last week stated that George Washington probably left splinters from his wooden teeth in someone’s thigh, but no one was looking to report such matters then. Not true: British and some Antifederalist journalists looked hard for dirt in his past (especially in his early friendship with Sally Fairfax), yet Washington was spotless. Throughout most of American history there have been Matt Drudges—journalists looking to dig up dirt—but the overwhelming majority of presidents have been clean, at least in the White House.

Second, journalists and voters who do not scrutinize candidates’ sexual flings are negligent. Faithfulness to a wife is no guarantee of faithfulness to the country; look at Richard Nixon. Faithlessness, however, is generally a leading indicator of trouble. Small betrayals in marriage generally lead to larger betrayals, and leaders who break a large vow to one person find it easy to break relatively small vows to millions.

The word liberals don’t own anymore

The New York Times, Nov. 14, 1998

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas sent thousands of computer chips into action when he said on election night that he was giving the Republican Party a compassionate conservative face. Pundits pounding their laptops proclaimed, with the political scientist Larry Sabato, that a Republican move to the center was as obvious as a wart on the nose of Miss America. Others argued that the battle of 2000 will be Bush vs. ideological true believers.

That’s too simple by far. When Gov. Bush, at his victory celebration, proclaimed that a leader who was compassionate and conservative could win big, his evidence was the nearly 70 percent solution, an overwhelming ballot box victory. That was visible to all. What went unremarked, though, was the governor’s use of a redefinition of compassion that has been a decade in the making.

Liberals owned the word “compassion” until 1990—much as “family values” is a code phrase for conservatives. It did not convey what its literal dictionary definition states: compassion as with suffering, reflecting the close personal tie of a caring individual suffering with a person in distress. Instead, newspaper articles defined a compassionate legislator as one voting for a welfare spending bill; those voting against it were automatically cold hearted.

That has become nuanced in the ’90s, as conservatives pushing for welfare reform stopped stressing that the dole wastes dollars and instead spoke of wasted lives. Conservatives developed their own expressions: “effective compassion”; help that is “challenging,” “personal” and “spiritual”; and “warmhearted but tough-minded,” which translates into two words: “compassionate conservative.”

And the new compassionate conservatives began publicizing and defending small organizations, many of them religious, that had strong though limited track records in fighting alcoholism and drug addiction, helping adults escape welfare, tutoring children and motivating ex-cons to avoid new trouble.

As a compassionate conservative, Mr. Bush has the chance to clear from American politics one of our deepest clichés: right-wing Scrooges vs. left-wing Lady Bountifuls.

Gov. Bush inadvertently walked close to a Texas chainsaw in 1995, his first year in office. A state agency tried to shut down an evangelical anti-drug organization that was effective, despite breaking regulations on matters like the number of classroom hours that counselors needed. When the organization’s drug-free alumni from diverse ethnic origins demonstrated with great Texas resonance at the Alamo, cards and letters poured in to the governor’s office.

Mr. Bush had the political acumen and human concern to come to the group’s aid, and then to propose legislation to pen up the regulatory dogs. Since then, the governor has gained respect by backing similar organizations.

Gov. Bush also showed good judgment when he refused to indulge in anti-Hispanic sales pitches like those of Gov. Pete Wilson of California. His welfare reform measures stopped short of cutting off legal immigrants or keeping children out of schools.

Does this mean he will move to moderation? Only if we accept the 1980s definitions: compassionate big-spending left vs. throwing people out on the streets right.

But what if the spectrum is redefined to put (on the left) expanded governmental welfare and (on the right) expanded activities of churches and civic organizations so that they can one day replace government services with something far more effective? Then, Gov. Bush is a lot further to the right than a moderate whose greatest desire is to preserve the status quo.

As a compassionate conservative, Mr. Bush has the chance to clear from American politics one of our deepest clichés: right-wing Scrooges vs. left-wing Lady Bountifuls. He is as yet unproved at the national level, but he just may redefine the spectrum in a way that surprises both liberals and conventional conservatives.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Sat, 01/06/2018 11:04 am

    Dear Dr. Olasky:
    Maybe your optimism was not so much misplaced as it was impatient. With Hollywood's and several political figures' seeming invincibility crumbling, quite possibly your optimism that "character matters" is just now beginning its renaissance.

  • Dave Stravers's picture
    Dave Stravers
    Posted: Sat, 01/06/2018 02:53 pm

    I agree somewhat with Greg M. Why do you think you were overly optimistic?  The Presidential election that pitted one kind of character flaw against another kind of character flaw?  Our mainstream media, already proven to be extremely out of touch with the majority of Americans?  Just the fact that moral issues are in the news today, when the same behavior got zero publicity a generation ago, might be taken as a sign that you were right, and we will not let powerful people get away with it anymore?  A lot of stuff, including anti-compassion agendas, were once invisible to most of us. Because they are now being reported does not mean our culture has regressed, only that we have become more sensitive, and less tolerant of bad behavior.  One area of concern is the depiction of "evangelical Christians" as self-centered and fearful. To the extent that we are, we should be ashamed of our failure to follow Christ's example.


  • Pastor Mike
    Posted: Sun, 01/07/2018 08:43 pm

    Thanks Marvin.  I remember reading both of these articles 20years ago.  The presidential adultery train was eye opening. 

    Leaders  character does matter. 


    Posted: Wed, 01/10/2018 04:11 am

    Mr. Olasky: Surely the intervening 20 years between the blue dress lies and MeToo wave prove at least one thing with surety: the bug of personal moral corruption cares not where it lands. A plumber is as likely as a producer is as likely as a pastor is as likely as a president to host it and your column of 1998 shows that it has ever been so - surprise! Are we doomed to enduring the odious policies of a liberal man with moral rectitude in order to enjoy the good ideas of a perfidious conservative? Yes: we're perilously short of Reagans so we'll have to muddle through the Obamas to get to the Trumps. God give us wisdom to endure them BOTH!