I received an overture the other day to compose a journalistic effusion on the consequences of presidents — well, to be specific, one president — trafficking in conspiracy theories and using the news media to amplify unverified, if not completely false, allegations. You can probably guess that an aging president-watcher would harbor a view or two on that subject. But, in a rare spasm of wordsmith reluctance, I declined.
In this political environment, to sound off about a commander in chief promoting baseless balderdash would undoubtedly lead to labeling by the officeholder’s base supporters as an “enemy” of those people or worse. We know where he stands, I could hear some readers say while rejecting the argument.
When this happens, the give-and-take of democratic conversation goes by the wayside amid a hyperpartisan atmosphere that pervades the media writ large and the public in general. Instead of the open-minded discussion of public problems a self-governing people deserves, it seems as though more and more citizens are wearing blinkers to focus their attention on party-identified differences they deem worthy of approbation or condemnation. With those blinkers firmly in place, they lose sight of the middle ground between extremes.
'Decent respect' should be the norm
At the same time polarizing partisanship has become so brass-knuckled and fierce, historic norms, conventions and traditions of the White House have of late either come under assault or been abandoned altogether. Having (in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence) “a decent respect” for the office of president and those who’ve occupied it should be natural. The genuine friendships between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as well as between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, rivals in the campaigns of 1976 and 1992, respectively, attest to that.
However, the recent suggestion sent via Twitter to over 63 million followers that one former president might be involved in murder gives new meaning to the word “unconventional” for anyone attempting to describe a successor to George Washington.
When Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for his first of four White House victories in 1932, he called the presidency “preeminently a place of moral leadership.” For nearly a half-century, through Democratic and Republican administrations, I’ve taught and written with Roosevelt’s insight as a lodestar or guiding principle of nonpartisan — and one always prays — fair analysis in assessing presidents, what they say and their actions.
How to define moral leadership
Though a precise definition of moral leadership is elusive for politically minded souls, some essential characteristics stand out, I’d emphasize for students or readers. From a foundation of integrity and honesty, the public figure needs to add inspiration, empathy and courage. Over time that amalgamation of attributes can develop into a full-fledged vision for governing that’s based on credibility and trust.
Individual political judgments about the merits of such leadership will differ, of course, but the reasons for pursuing one or another course are clear and usually revolve around fundamental questions. What’s the right course for the people and country? How can women and men across the nation come together to address problems? Who share these standards for governance and might be willing to help?
Unfortunately, when theory and practice collide like speeding trains, dispassionate evaluation goes off the tracks, throwing the neutral observer into a ditch of perilous surroundings. In this circumstance, even a tepid, wishy-washy explanation invariably gets interpreted as taking one side or another in whatever newsworthy matter might be playing out at the moment.
It's not partisan to want a role model
Looking beyond a particular moment looms the larger concern about the future. Put more starkly: Is what’s happening now an anomaly or an augury? Can we expect at some point to see a return to norms established by previous presidents, or will the spirit of “anything goes” continue for winners of the White House?
In sketching out traits of moral leadership on the blackboard for students, I would always include one other requirement in the inventory: emulation. Is the president (or the candidate who’s running for our highest office) someone possessing the character and temperament that other people can recognize and respect, no matter the person’s political affiliation?
Call me hopelessly old-fashioned, even deplorably die-hard, but wanting a role model in the Oval Office shouldn’t be too outlandish a dream for Americans, young, middle-age or elderly. That heartfelt wish chooses no partisan side — just the common, and national, good.
Robert Schmuhl is a professor emeritus of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame and author of "The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump," which will be published Sept. 15.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Presidents should be moral role models. Has Trump ended that for good?