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From Washington & Jefferson to Trump & Biden

Moral Vision

The United States has produced more than its fair share of fascinating figures. Over the course of its storied history, it has produced a host of figures who have shaped the nation, the continent, and the world. Many of these have been its presidents and politicians, though others have been its inventors, its business leaders, or those who have in other ways shaped public morality. While each of these people has a public side, they also have a private side. And sometimes people who make a great impact publicly can live with great immorality privately.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal compelled Marvin Olasky to begin thinking about the effect private activities have on the lives of public leaders. In the context of that scandal, the White House insisted that Clinton’s private immorality had no bearing on his public role. The voting public seemed to agree that the two could remain neatly compartmentalized. “Many journalists at the time agreed with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen that a president ‘conventionally immoral in his personal life’ can still be a wonderful ‘person in his public life.’ Can be, sure, because life is complicated. But how likely is that?”

Olasky examined the issue in his 1998 book The American Leadership Tradition. But time showed that perhaps he over-corrected—that while many conventional journalists oversimplified by taking the “no effect” line, he oversimplified in the other direction. Not only that, but in his own judgment he was censorious and lacked nuance. In Moral Vision: Leadership from George Washingon to Joe Biden (which is a substantially revised and expanded edition of his former work) he takes up the issue again and does so through a series of short biographies of noteworthy Americans. “George Washington pledged in his 1789 inaugural address that ‘the foundation for national policy will be laid in the sure and immutable principles of private morality.’ I’ve tried to look at how we have followed through on that—or have not.”

He begins at the beginning, of course, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both were great men in many ways, yet both had significant moral flaws: Washington was a slave owner; Jefferson was not only a slave owner but was also committed to sexual immorality. Olasky is not iconoclastic toward them, as if their statues ought to be torn down and their names erased from the history books. Yet, on the other hand, he does not wish to pretend that their public lives would remain entirely unaffected by their moral flaws.

As he moves to Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, he grapples with the private and public lives of men who were responsible for the notorious Trail of Tears and the brutal subjugation of an entire people. Then he moves to Madame Restell who did so much to promote abortion among New Yorkers in the mid-1850s. He looks at the faith of Abraham Lincoln and whether it was consistent or inconsistent with his decision to wage total war against the South.

Grover Cleveland and John D. Rockefeller follow Lincoln, then Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells. As he reaches the modern era, he looks at both Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, and Kennedy. In the postmodern era he pairs up Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, then Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It is safe to say that he is no fan of either one of the latter two.

As Olasky comes to the end of the book, he reflects on assessing character and some of the “tells” that may distinguish people of good character from those of poor character. He believes that fidelity in marriage is an important one, though not the only one. He highlights others as well—following through on promises, a concern for other people, honesty, and self-discipline. He even buzzes through the Ten Commandments to see which of them, when violated, has troubled the American people and which has not. In the end, he hopes that the book causes voters to consider not only a candidate’s positions or promises but also his character.

If this book has one practical benefit, I hope it will make groups reluctant to hand out voter guides that merely list candidate votes on particular issues, as if that should be the sole determinant in casting a ballot. This does a disservice to those looking for guidance. If I have done a disservice to readers by being less emphatic on some questions than I was in the first edition, so be it. I’m more aware of the complications of history and biography than I was twenty-five years ago, but I still believe in the centrality of moral vision, which is the sum of character, experience, and faith.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Moral Vision. Olasky is a talented writer whose work reminds me a great deal of David McCullough—about as high a compliment as I know to give. I appreciated each one of the brief biographies and was challenged by the constant focus on moral strengths and weaknesses. Some will agree and some will disagree with his conclusions, but I think all will benefit from considering them.

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