Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Dignity and the pursuit of the presidency

Peggy Noonan reflects on the dignity expressed in John McCain’s VMI speech:

Has any other presidential candidate written a speech to persuade--importune--an audience to change their minds?"


You can agree or disagree with Mr. McCain, but where he stands is clear--and clarity these days, from our candidates, feels like a gift. As does certitude. He isn’t running from the war but owning it. A political rival might say, "He has no choice." But there’s always a choice.


My larger point, however, is that he sounded like a serious man addressing a serious issue in a serious way. This makes him at the moment stand out.

And (continuing the thought) on the lack of dignity so often present on the campaign trail. Perhaps, she suggests, it all started with Richard Nixon’s appearance on "Laugh In" before Congress socked it to him. While RMN certainly did a lot to sully the dignity of the office--for the most part dignity was for him a mere appearance (I have vague recollections of fancily dressed White House guards)--I’d give something to Kennedy and Johnson before him; they weren’t exactly paragons of decorum, though perhaps they kept their transgressions under wraps better than Nixon did.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the two greatest recent public violators of Presidential dignity and decorum were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Representing the people isn’t a high calling in which we think of what’s best about ourselves (our dignity, so to speak). Rather, we represent by reflecting their ordinariness or even their vulgarity.

I’m reminded of a line from an old Hollywood movie: "You used to be big." "I am big. It’s the pictures that got small." Norma Desmond may be delusional, but I don’t think we are if we recall big presidents and the relative pettiness of those now seeking the office.

Discussions - 2 Comments

It seems to me that "Presidential dignity" has an interesting (but not necessary) correlation to the media industry (as well as its un-industrial boom, through blogs and the like). The former seems to have taken a steep decline as the latter has grown . . . I wonder if there's anything to that.

Didn't John McCain announce his candidacy for the Presidency on the David Letterman Show? Dignified, indeed.

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