One might think that everything a president needs to know about honesty was learned in Sunday school. Yet, as in so many areas of leadership, this would be slightly misleading.
To be sure, we as a people have memorialized presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln who have been seen as leaders of candor and complete integrity. In modern times, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower stand out as men of character, as do many others who served them during World War II like George Marshall. In his writings about Truman, historian David McCullough concluded that character is the single most important asset a president must have.
Even during the cynicism of the Watergate period, I saw personally how much trust was still the coin of the realm. As recounted by Jim Cannon in his memoirs of the period, Richard Nixon was in search of a new vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal. Nixon wanted John Connally as Agnew’s successor and called in the two leaders of the Democratic Congress, Senator Mike Mansfield and Speaker Carl Albert, to run his choice by them. They both adamantly refused, arguing that they didn’t trust Connally. Well, who would you support, then, Nixon asked. Carl Albert suggested only one man, Jerry Ford, and Mansfield seconded the idea. “We gave Nixon no choice but Ford,” said Albert later. And so it was that Nixon chose Ford — a man universally trusted for his honesty.
Ford’s tenure was the shortest in the 20th century and his pardon of Nixon brought a storm of controversy, but in the rear view mirror of history, he looks better and better. A few years before he died, the John F. Kennedy Library presented him with its profile in courage award for the Nixon pardon. Introducing him at the Kennedy School, former Senator Alan Simpson said, “If you have integrity in politics, nothing else matters; if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
Most of us would like to believe that, and most of the time we do. Yet candor compels to recall historical examples when that was not quite true. Think of the contrast in our historical memories between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover was a complete boy scout — a man famous for his many personal virtues — but he went down as one of our worst presidents. By contrast, Roosevelt could be a deeply devious man who kept everyone guessing about what he really meant or what he was really doing. And the press often went along with him: throughout his presidency, reporters and photographers cooperated with him as he misled the public into believing that he had conquered polio and could walk again. When war came, he expressed his approach very directly:
“You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does… I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”
Roosevelt today is almost universally remembered as the greatest American president of the 20th century — one who stands in the same pantheon as Washington and Lincoln.
What can one conclude from our political history? Personally, I continue to believe that trust and honesty remain central to presidential leadership. Indeed, they are even more important to leadership today than in the past because our presidents can no longer count on deference from the public but must rely heavily upon persuasion and influence. Yet there are moments when the public expects a president to be tough and crafty — even manipulative and deceptive. They recognize, for example, that the world can be a rough place and they want a president who will protect them in the jungle.
If there is any line to be drawn, perhaps it is this: the public is much more prepared to accept deception in the White House if they think the president is acting in the national interest but not if they think he is acting in his self interest. Even though the press was in an uproar over Nixon’s lies about bombing Cambodia, for example, the general public seemed more accepting as a price of war. But when the public saw him lie over Watergate in order to protect himself, they turned against him.
As a general proposition, voters want a president in the White House they can trust, but they also want someone who is effective as a leader – and once in a while, Machiavelli may trump the Marquis of Queensbury.
David Gergen is a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership. He is also editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report and a Senior Political Analyst for CNN. In earlier years, he served as a White House adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.