“What is their character like? What are their ethics”? — two questions raised recently by retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s former Chief of Staff. “I think we need to look harder at who we elect,” he added.
Character refers to integrity, principle, responsibility, courage, truthfulness. Lincoln, whose ethic of responsibility led to the Emancipation Proclamation; General Grant, whose moral commitment was reflected in his efforts to secure the rights of liberated slaves; FDR, who worked for years to maintain a democratic nation in the midst of despairing countries elsewhere turning to fascism and communism.
Character is what one is, often though not always, strictly related to what one does. President John F. Kennedy, for example, led a sexually reckless life, both before and during his presidency. Yet in meeting national crises, Kennedy could demonstrate a high level of responsibility.
Consider the space within 48 hours in June 1963 when he was confronted with domestic violence at home and conflict with the Soviet Union abroad. On June 9 when he was in Honolulu to address a U.S mayor’s conference, sit-ins and violence were spreading in the South. Flying back to D.C., he edited a Cold War speech on nuclear weapons and test ban inspections to be delivered at American University’s commencement the next morning. He closed his address by announcing that Khrushchev had just agreed to negotiate a test ban treaty.
After his address, Kennedy learned that Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace would stand in a doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from entering. After consulting with the Attorney General and others about the combustible issue of sit-ins and riots, he delivered an Oval Office address to the nation the next evening: “We are confronted with a moral issue…as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” (Shortly after midnight, Mississippi state NAACP secretary Medgar Evers was shot in the driveway to his house.)
Whatever presidential character is, President Kennedy had it during those crowded hours.
Our better presidents have accepted responsibility for actions taken, did not always insist on absolute personal loyalty above conscientious service, avoided self-pity and confusing personal interests with national interests.
Given this historical context, how deficient our current president appears. President Donald Trump’s current year in office began with his bungling response to the coronavirus pandemic, first in denying its existence and then downplaying it as it was killing (to date) 115,000 Americans. “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the spreading coronavirus, he told a reporter. So much reflected a negativism seldom seen in effective presidents. He showed little empathy in the slow, sickening act that killed George Floyd, or in the legitimacy of the worldwide protest against racism that followed.
Trump’s suggestion that the 75-year-old Buffalo peace advocate, injured when police pushed him to the ground, is really an Antifa provocateur, once again showed the limitless nature of his many absurd charges. Strange was his defense of riot police who used chemical irritants to remove protesters from near the White House in order for him to walk to nearby St John’s Episcopal Church for a campaign photo-op. There he neither prayed nor spoke, but rather held up a Bible, then left.
Word has emerged from anonymous White House sources that insiders fear Trump is on the ropes. That sense gained authority when unprecedented numbers of the military elite, perceiving dangers to the nation, publically censored a sitting president. Leading the charge was Gen. James Mattis, who had served the president as secretary of defense and who was angered by the removal of protestors in Lafayette Square: It made “a mockery of our Constitution.” “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime,” he continued, “who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”
Others weighed in to defend Mattis, the earliest being Marine Gen. John Kelly, who not only served the president as secretary of defense, but also as the White House Chief of Staff. Withering criticism from revered military chieftains flooded the airwaves: Former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Generals Colin Powell, Richard Myers, Michael Mullen, and Martin Dempsey), ret. Marine General John Allen, and ret. Army General Stanley McChrystal have warned in interviews about a president who has, in Powell’s words, “drifted away from the Constitution.”
Their public warnings about authoritarian power have alarmed Trump’s campaign advisors. Perhaps they can somehow conjure up from Trump a clarifying moral vision. Otherwise, it will be difficult for him to convince voters that he is right president for four more years.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.