No. My friend Larry Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, insists that because those in politics are pressured to be more clever than honest, we should therefore grade presidents and major politicians on a curve. Larry is right in that politicians are often rewarded less for integrity and more for shady maneuverings to bring taxpayer dollars home to their districts. But here is a greater truth: Before the 1930s, politicians in America did tend to rise to the top on the basis of their character and integrity. Sure, there were exceptions, but from George Washington to “Honest Abe” to Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, those who became national figures more often than not were men of honor.
One example of such a politician is Charles Evans Hughes, who served as Governor of New York, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Republican nominee for president in 1916. Did Hughes rise to prominence through schemes to bring taxdollars from Washington, D.C. to New York? Or by signature spending programs that brought luster to his career? No, he did not, because the Constitution limited government, and before the 1930s politicians agreed to those limits. Taxes and tariffs were present, but were only a small part of political life. Hughes and others had to win the confidence of their peers and add value to the country to win nominations and elections. Questions of character were major election issues, and candidates rose or fell on how voters and other politicians assessed their character.
Historian Betty Glad, who wrote Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence, began her research “with an investigation of Hughes’s public statements, which were then checked against his private papers for possible discrepancy between his public and private views. None was discovered. . . .” Imagine that—what Hughes said and believed in private is what he said and believed in public. Betty Glad concludes Hughes was “an exemplar of the virtues of his age—not a creative genius.” No he wasn’t brilliant but he was hard working and honest; peers knew they could trust him, and Hughes held many national offices. Others of the early 1900s were similar to Hughes in that respect, liberal and conservative alike. Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, historians have discovered, had strong character and behaved in private exactly the way he acted in public. Much the same with Senator George Norris and President William Howard Taft. They rose to prominence by the force of their character more than by their ability to scheme for votes.
When FDR expanded government in the 1930s, the role of being an “exemplar of virtues” diminished. Instead, appealing to voters by promises of federal aid increased. FDR, for example, when running for office, claimed he had written the Haiti Constitution, when in fact he never went to Haiti. In 1932 he promised again and again in speeches and in the Democratic platform to cut federal spending by 25%, but he sharply raised spending instead. Roosevelt’s lack of character was offset by his ability, in the new politics of the modern era, to target subsidies to key voting groups—farmers, silver miners, unions, and senior citizens. In effect, FDR (and most of his successors) have said “Vote for me. Look at what I can give you from the government, not at what kind of person I am.”
George Washington said the U.S. would not endure without moral leadership. Before the era of big government we tended to have that moral leadership. Maybe if we followed the limited government of the Constitution again, we wouldn’t have to grade our presidents on the curve to get a passing president.