The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns
Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn
Chapter 5: Dangerous liaisons: adultery and the ethics of presidential leadership
The relationship between the public and private morality of leaders has long vexed biographers, historians, psychologists, and philosophers as well as voters, and any person or group that has had to select a leader or decide whether to follow one. Since the mid-1990s James MacGregor Burns and I have argued about whether private morality, particularly in relation to adultery, affected the leadership of the presidents he studied—for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Burns did not think it affected their leadership. We discussed President Clinton’s scandal with Monica Lewinsky at length when it was constantly in the news. I thought that adultery would matter, but I was unsure of how, why, and to what extent. The issue has many layers to it, including some fundamental philosophic questions about the nature of morality. Is morality contextual? Is a person’s moral character one or many? How does private morality affect public morality? There are also empirical questions about whether private morality actually affects the ethics of how a president leads. This chapter focuses on the real and potential ethical problems that unethical private behavior poses for leaders and their leadership. To explore this question, it examines US presidents from 1901 to 2001 who have committed adultery. I concentrate on adultery because, despite changes in American sexual mores, the public’s attitudes about it have remained fairly constant over the years.
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