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Character Factor

How We Judge America's Presidents

By James P. Pfiffner

Publication Year: 2004

WATERGATE. MONICA LEWINSKY. PAINKILLERS IN THE OVAL OFFICE. IRAN-CONTRA. READ MY LIPS. THE CHARACTER FACTOR. The American president’s character matters. To most Americans, it matters deeply. But how do we define what character means, and why can’t we agree? In this sober, probing consideration of “the character factor” and the presidency, veteran political analyst James P. Pfiffner leads us through a survey of three aspects of presidential character that have proved problematic for recent chief executives: lies, promise-keeping, and sexual probity. His goal is not to tell us which presidents have been “good” and which “bad.” Rather, he helps us think critically and impartially about complex character issues and invites us to reach our own conclusions. The Character Factor avoids both the abyss of moral relativism and the desert of political cynicism. It helps us look at our presidents (and our presidential candidates) without illusions, knowing that flawed men can still be great leaders but that some flaws deserve defeat at the polls—or even the ultimate presidential sanction, impeachment.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xiv

The farcical elements resembled an eighteenth-century comedy of manners in which the main character is caught in a sexual affair with a woman not his wife and is greatly embarrassed by the discovery. Clinton’s affair also had some far-fetched coincidences reminiscent of musical comedy. The president is brought to court by a woman (Paula Jones) who felt that her honor had been publicly impugned by the author of an article...

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Chapter 1. Judging Presidential Character

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pp. 3-17

In American partisan politics, the character issue is most often raised with negative connotations to imply doubt about a person’s moral suitability for high public office. William Safire’s New Political Dictionary defines the character issue as “the moral uprightness of a candidate; or, a euphemism for an attack on a candidate for philandering.” He adds that the term is “almost always used in a verbal attack” that “insinuates a negative evaluation...

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Chapter 2. The Nature of Presidential Lies

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pp. 19-38

Virtually everybody lies, at least in the conduct of everyday life.1 We say the equivalent of “I’m pleased to meet you” to people we consider our adversaries or enemies. When asked by a casual acquaintance, “how are you?” we say “fine,” even though we may feel rotten for emotional or physical reasons. When a friend has been sick, we may say “you look...

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Chapter 3. Serious Presidential Lies

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pp. 39-63

In addition to justifiable lies, the lies analyzed in the previous chapter range from relatively innocuous exaggerations about the personal background of presidential candidates to lies meant to maintain political viability. This chapter turns to presidential lies that are more serious and have more far-reaching consequences than those in Chapter 2. First considered...

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Chapter 4. Sexual Probity and Presidential Character

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pp. 64-90

Even though the Clinton administration was accused of a number of crimes and ethical lapses, the allegations of sexual impropriety attracted the most attention and opprobrium. In public debate and campaigning, the “character issue” became a shorthand reference to allegations of sexual misconduct by Clinton. And amid other allegations, the charge that...

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Chapter 5. Character, Consistency, and Campaign Promises

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pp. 91-118

Presidential promises and consistency are important because of the basic democratic premise that citizens need to know what politicians intend to do in office in order to make informed judgments before casting their ballots. If politicians did not regularly keep their promises, voters would have much less information upon which to base their electoral choices....

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Chapter 6. Three Presidents in Crisis

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pp. 119-139

Three major crises of confidence have shaken the modern presidency— Watergate, Iran-Contra, and President Clinton’s impeachment. Each of them was caused not by external threats but by presidential decisions. Each of them led to serious consideration of impeachment and removal of the president from office: Nixon resigned in the face of virtually certain...

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Chapter 7. Character Complexity

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pp. 140-169

Presidents are complex human beings with many admirable attributes but who often exhibit less commendable traits. They are, after all, human. This chapter presents illustrations of presidential character complexity, beginning with the paradox of Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism. It then takes up George Washington and the issue of slavery. How do we...


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pp. 171-199

Sources for Epigraphs

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pp. 201-203


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pp. 205-209

Series Page

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p. 210

E-ISBN-13: 9781603446297
E-ISBN-10: 160344629X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585443161
Print-ISBN-10: 1585443166

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: Index.
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership
Series Editor Byline: Pfiffner, James P. See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 826658011
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Character Factor

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Character -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Political leadership -- United States.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Psychology -- Case studies.
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