When Character Mattered in Washington

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Joseph Epstein headlined “When Character Mattered in Washington”:

I admire my friends who no longer watch cable news. I doubtless take in too much of it, typically switching among the three main networks: Fox, CNN and MSNBC. I watch most of it with a book or magazine in my lap, but stories about the seemingly endless lawsuits against Donald Trump and accounts of the skullduggery of Hunter Biden and his father get my attention.

I find I wish neither our 45th nor 46th president well. Mr. Trump, who comes across so bold, and Joe Biden, who wishes to seem so sly, strike me as roughly equal in their depravity. I think of the one as the Manchurian Cantaloupe and the other as the Old Gaffer. Schadenfreude, the pleasure found in the fall of the mighty, isn’t something I have often felt. But I sense a strong strain of it in connection with their careers, whose falls I eagerly await.

Each man has risen to the presidency thanks, mostly, to the unattractiveness of his electoral opponent. Each man was elected as a lesser-evil choice, yet both have succeeded in vastly polluting the tone of our country’s political life. Lesser-evil choices sometimes turn out to be evil enough.

Low and seedy are the corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused: molesting women, entering into dubious financial dealings with foreign corporations and governments, cavalierly mishandling important documents, and more. Yet both men have been leaders of the free world, as the old saying had it, and both men want another go at it. Worse yet, as things currently stand, one or the other is likely to be successful. Little wonder that in most opinion polls a strong majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

Is there any way to get these two bozos off the national stage? Neither political party seems ready or willing to do so. The party that prides itself on probity and family values is likely to be represented by a man found liable for sexual abuse, while the party that prides itself on fairness and social justice by a man whose son has allegedly siphoned off millions from the sale of political influence that he may have shared with his father. The probable choices of Messrs. Trump and Biden reveal that the chief interest of both parties is to win and move on to power. Neither seems the least interested in character.

That ideal seems to have departed with the end of WASP culture, beginning sometime in the 1960s. As I wrote in these pages in 2013, whatever that culture’s shortcomings—a tolerance of quotas in many aspects of life, a want of imagination, a lack of interest in innovation—“corruption, scandal, incompetence in high places were not, as now, regular features of public life.” The result was that “stability, solidity, gravity, a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life.”

The last WASP figure in the White House was George H.W. Bush, though he often portrayed himself as a Texan. Our presidents from Bill Clinton on haven’t been noted for their good character. During their presidencies, George W. and Barack Obama were at least able to elude financial and sexual scandal but unable to attain the higher seriousness of earlier WASP presidents.

A return to the standards of WASP culture is unlikely. But an insistence on upstandingness and decency generally in presidential candidates might be a start to restoring national political life to a respectable level. Can it be done?

One is reminded of the character in a Henry James story—said to have been modeled on Henry Adams—who, planning a party, is given the line: “Let’s be vulgar—let’s invite the President!” If nothing changes between now and Nov. 5, 2024, the fun is likely to be redoubled by the deep vulgarity of the president himself.

Joseph Epstein is author, most recently, of “The Novel, Who Needs It?”

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