Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Daniels, Gingrich and others Beware: Personal Lives become Public Fodder When You Run for President
Suddenly, the anemic 2012 race is heating up. Bythis time four years ago, Senator Obama had been campaigning hard since his formal launch three months earlier. The killing of Osama Bin Laden at the beginning of May finally gave President Barack Obama renewed energy for his re-election bid. Days later, on May 5, Republicans experienced their first debate, er, preliminary primary campaign forum, sponsored by Fox News, followed by renewed speculation about just who might run for the nomination. And, predictably, we have the campaign’s first major diversion, triggering at least three hyped articles in the New York Times – leading Republicans with fidelity problems. The two prime examples are former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, on wife number three, and Indian Governor Mitch Daniels, whose wife Cheri Daniels took a break from their marriage and family life to marry another man, only to return and remarry Daniels.
The most recent article “Marital Matters and the 2012 Election,” resurrects another campaign tradition – the news analysis lacking historical analysis – which is where this blog hopes to come in handy. The article went off track by claiming: “In decades past, there was kind of an unwritten rule in politics: a candidate’s private life mattered only to the extent that it reflected on his or her ability to serve. That rule became extinct with the 1988 presidential campaign of Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat caught on a yacht named ‘Monkey Business’ snuggling with a woman other than his wife.”
Traditionally, the “unwritten rule” was that a candidate’s private life mattered only to the extent that it could appear ideal. There has been a longstanding fascination with potential First Ladies, accompanied by a longstanding willingness on reporters’ part not to pry too deeply. But, for example, when Nelson Rockefeller divorced his first wife and quickly remarried, it destroyed his presidential prospects a quarter of a century before Gary Hart’s “Monkey Business.” And in 1828, even though he won, opponents hurt Andrew Jackson by accusing his wife Rachel of bigamy, a charge Jackson believed broke her heart and killed her.
Similarly, the article’s claim that “In today’s celebrity-obsessed, Internet-driven world, voters are hungry for details, especially when the presidency is at stake,” was also misleading. Even though the claim was adorned by a quotation from Doris Kearns Goodwin that “Character matters… We think about that now in choosing somebody for office,” “celebrity” and “Internet” are relatively new ingredients in a much older recipe. Assessing the president’s character has long been one of America’s greatest national pastimes. George Washington himself became president and became legendary based more on his character, his virtue, than any particular policy stances. And the First Lady’s peculiar, undefined, extraconstitutional role has often functioned as a window into the president’s character, while First Families have been expected to embody traditional values.
True, our celebrity obsession and 24/7 blogosphere, our culture of gossip and obsession with the presidential horse race have heightened the scrutiny immeasurably. So far, even the supposedly sober New York Times has put more emphasis on Mitch Daniels’ marital trauma than his budget-cutting skills. But some modern candidates have created no-fly zones over particular aspects of their personal lives. The article mentioned Bill Clinton’s effective navigation around his infidelities in 1992. In 1996, Bob Dole did not lose because he betrayed his first wife, which few noticed; in 2004 John Kerry did not lose because he betrayed his first wife. And in 2000, George W. Bush’s great line “when I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid,” earned him more immunity than many would have expected in our culture of scrutiny. Bush’s example helped Barack Obama himself avoid much fallout for confessing drug use as a youth.
Mitch Daniels has a great one-liner: “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” Whether it works remains to be seen. But even at this stage, when few predictions are sound, we can predict that over the next year and a half, we won’t just be debating policy. In presidential politics, character counts – as it has for over two centuries. Just what character means and how it can be judged remains a subject of great debate; sometimes enlightening, sometimes tawdry.