Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

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Wrapping Up The "Presidents Behaving Badly" Series

For a while now, I had planned on doing a series on Presidential wrongdoing, but had hesitated for a number of reasons. I'm not really a fan of going negative or of trying to minimize great accomplishments by digging up past indiscretions. I've tried to make this community about history rather than politics. Mention the names George W. Bush or Barack Obama, and immediately a segment of the population becomes angry at real or imagined grievances, often embellished by some sort of partisan or ideological fervor. History should be less judgmental, or at least should recognize that judgement with the benefit of hindsight is not always fair. Presidents have not been one-dimensional figures and have faced daunting issues and challenges that would tax the morality and ethical standards of a saint. While some delight in casting the first or the largest stone, I don't consider that the be a comfortable or admirable endeavor.

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I thought that the topic of Presidents Behaving Badly might offer some interesting and amusing fodder because it seems to have spawned a number of book on the subject. These include:

Secret Lives of the US Presidents by Cormac O’Brien
Which President Killed a Man? by James Humes
Presidential Confidential by John Bortlien
Failures of the Presidents by Thomas Craughwell
American Presidents: A Dark History by Michael Kerrigan
Anything For a Vote by Joseph Cummins
Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Misadventure and Triumph by Jim Cullen
Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief From the Oval Office by Brian Abrams

Those are just the ones in my collection, but I suspect there are many that I'm not aware of. With this amount of source material, I believed that there would be no shortage of material for this subject. However I was surprised to find that this wasn't necessarily the case.

Presidential misconduct seemed to fall into a few standard categories:

(1) Those who had strayed from their marriage vows
(2) Those who occasionally drank too much (or in more recent history, who used other substances)
(3) Those who were racist, or had other ethnic prejudices
(4) Those who covered up the misdeeds of their friends

There were other areas of misbehavior. Nixon's abuse of power during Watergate is probably the most glaring example of this. Generally speaking however, no President to my knowledge was ever caught stealing, taking bribes or personally profiting from the theft or corruption of his subordinates. Grant and Harding (and to a lesser extent Truman) are famous for having scandal-plagued administrations, but historians generally concur that their biggest fault was the lack of oversight of those they appointed to high positions, not any personal pilfering.

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There are some Presidents who seemed to be walking moral disasters. Nixon is often seen as among the worst because he foolishly tape-recorded many of his admissions of wrong-doing. Perhaps the best example of reality being at odds with perception is John F. Kennedy. While his image of Camelot has been spun as an example of near-Sainthood, today this image has been graffitied over by our current knowledge of his rampant philandering, and evidence of his participation in electoral fraud. New York Times investigative journalist Seymour Hersh eviscerates Kennedy's character in his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot and it offers a much different image of JFK than the one popularly portrayed. (I'm currently reading this book and will write a review of it when I finish).

In researching this series, I found that many of the common stories about Presidents behaving badly simply have no truth to them, no matter how often they are repeated. For example, the story is often told about Franklin Pierce running over a little old lady with his horse-drawn carriage, but according to Pierce's biographers, there is no source material to support this story, not even in the anti-Pierce newspapers of the day or in contemporary police blotters. Many books repeat a story that Warren Harding lost a set of White House fine china on a bet in a poker game, but when I scoured the more reputable biographies of Harding for a source for this story (or for more details), none were found. Those books which told the story did not offer any source for it. The fifty-dollar word for these types of stories is apocryphal, but there is a cruder synonym that I won't repeat.

Writing about the adulterous liaisons of presidents, about their youthful indiscretions or their racist tendencies can make one feel unclean. Reasonable people take no pleasure in dragging anyone's reputation through the mud, and I confess to some shame in retrospect from having selected this theme. It overlooks the fact that most of the occupants of the oval office have displayed many positive qualities. Many have been good family men. Many have had strong social consciences. Many have made great personal sacrifice, whether that sacrifice was a financial one (as was the case with most of the early presidents), a sacrifice of family time and relationships, or a sacrifice of reputation by opening themselves up to bitter partisan attacks, something that appears to be becoming stronger in recent times.


Perhaps what is needed isn't a "Presidents Behaving Badly" series, but one of "Presidents Behaving Goodly", (yes I know that's not exactly proper English,) to explore the many positive characteristics and deeds Presidents have had and done. Presidential history is full of examples of principled positions, noble deeds and random acts of executive kindness. These "better angels" of presidents' natures would make for much more interesting reading, and be a good reminder of what greatness is really all about. Stay tuned.
Tags: barack obama, franklin pierce, george w. bush, john f. kennedy, presidential bios, presidential sex scandals, richard nixon, warren harding

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