The Character Issue
Jude Wanniski
August 7, 1996


Memo To: Harold Ickes, [Deputy White House Chief of Staff]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Character Issue

When I saw this morning's lead editorial in the WSJournal on President Clinton and the "Does Character Matter?" issue, I thought you and the First Family would enjoy the following story as much as Alan Greenspan did, when I stopped by last Tuesday to see him at the Fed. I told him I had been playing golf the previous Sunday at my club in Morristown with a member who absolutely hates Bill Clinton. During a wait at one of the tees, he almost turned purple denouncing the President on the "character issue," listing seriatim all the various assertions and allegations he had picked up as a regular reader of the WSJournal editorial page. When I quietly suggested that "Clinton's isn't all bad," he threw me a look that could kill and demanded to know what was good about him. "Well," I said, "he reappointed Greenspan." This brought a puzzled look from him: "What does that have to do with character?" Whereupon I asked him to consider two candidates. One goes to church every Sunday, prays on his knees morning and night, is faithful to his wife, never fibs to family or friends or cuts corners on his taxes, and is considered by one and all among the most upright of men. But when you ask him if he will reappoint Greenspan, he says: "No, definitely not!" I told him that I would need ask no more, but would vote for the sinner. I've gotten laughs out of Greenspan before, but never like the one he gave to that story.

The problem with the WSJournal edit page is that it has gotten itself into a prosecutorial frame of mind. When you are prosecuting someone on criminal charges, you block out all considerations of extenuating circumstances or circumstantial evidence. You whip yourself into a lather in going for the kill. In 1974, when I worked for Bob Bartley on the page, it was The Washington Post and The New York Times that teamed to prosecute an "obviously guilty man," President Nixon. At the time, Bartley asked me to undertake the role on the page as Nixon's advocate, inasmuch as nobody else wanted to do it. I not only defended Nixon, but did so with passion, and to this day I believe he was not guilty of the things his prosecutors believed. In a very real sense, Bartley is doing to Bill Clinton what he believes he must do, because nobody else will do it. Those of us sitting in the jury do not see evidence to convict on lack of character, and the prosecuting team cannot persuade us by banging on the table.

At one point a few years ago I had been willing to listen to charges that Clinton freely lies, but no longer do. The Journal now asserts that he is an existentialist, i.e., he says whatever comes into his head at the moment. I've concluded that the trait is closer to having an open mind. I've also told golfing buddies at my club that I see the President the way I would see a mouse going into a maze, sniffing a piece of cheese at the other end. He is not "changing his mind" from day to day as much as he is changing directions when he runs into intellectual or political cul de sacs. As a result, he is a much better President today than he was at the starting point of his learning curve. I still don't know if I will vote for him in November. I will make that decision on November 4. But he is definitely in the running.