FDR Would Never Have Passed This Test

Were Obama to apply his standards to presidents past, he’d miss out on greats like Jefferson, Jackson, and Kennedy.

11.18.08 6:48 AM ET

If Franklin Delano Roosevelt were alive now, he might have a lot of advice for President-elect Barack Obama about how to lead in a time of economic crisis, but he probably would not be able to get a job in the administration. In response to the fierce partisan warfare and frenzied media environment that has defined the past four decades of public life in America, the Obama team has imposed some of the toughest disclosure standards for anyone who wants to obtain a high-ranking position in his administration.

According to The New York Times, job candidates must put absolutely everything on the table. This is vetting on steroids. The administration is asking “if you have ever sent an electronic communication, including but, not limited to an email, text message or instant message that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect if it were made public, please describe.” If you want a job, the Obama team wants to know everything you have written in the blogosphere and on Facebook and even about your diary. Some of the requests are an effort to cleanse government, asking people about their ties to corporations and the business of their spouses. But much of the information is an effort to shield the White House from a damaging scandal, or potential one.

Thomas Jefferson’s alleged relationship with one of his slaves would not go down well with the transition team.

While the standards certainly make sense from the political perspective of the administration and are probably inevitable in the modern age, it is disturbing to think of some of the presidents who would never have made it through the process. Thomas Jefferson, whom many historians consider one of the great presidents, would surely not be working in Washington. Jefferson’s personal life has become the subject of history books and endless debate. His alleged relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and the child they may have bore, would not go down well with the transition team.

Jefferson was not alone. The 19th century was filled with sex scandals. Andrew Jackson had to survive stories about adultery and bigamy in the campaigns of 1824 and 1828—when he and his wife, Rachel, married, she was legally married to another man—while Republicans in 1884 attacked Grover Cleveland for having an illegitimate child. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” became a taunting refrain on the campaign trail.

In the 19th century, when presidents were less prominent and political parties much stronger in determining the outcome of the vote, such personal attacks were not sufficient to subvert the success of presidential candidates. The personal life of lower-level officials was not yet of much interest, if at all.

Concern over personal issues diminished even further in the 20th century, when news reporters strove for a norm of objectivity and became determined to distinguish themselves from the tabloids by avoiding coverage of sex scandals.

Yet this did not mean that famous politicians did not live scandalous lives. Franklin Roosevelt—the president now hailed as a role model for Obama—would not make it through the current scrutiny. Roosevelt had an affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s personal secretary, which his wife discovered in 1918, and secretly continued the relationship the rest of his life (Lucy was by FDR’s side when he died in 1945).

John F. Kennedy, who inspired an entire generation, another Obama role model, led a dizzying social life that was not much of a secret in Washington, though the stories were kept off the front pages. Kennedy had sexual relations with numerous women, including Judith Campbell Exner, who also had relations with the notorious mob boss Sam Giancana, and a serious affair with the socially prominent Mary Pinchot Meyer, former wife of a CIA official.

After Kennedy, many of the restraints that had emerged after the 19th century on scandal politics disappeared. Partisanship and polarization heightened the willingness of each party to put any issue on the table to destroy their opponents. The creation of a 24 hour, seven days a week media, with weak and sometimes nonexistent editorial controls, has made it much easier for damaging information to reach the public eye.

For many Americans, the cost of this style of political warfare became too clear in 1998 and 1999, when a Republican Congress attempted to impeach President Bill Clinton because of his affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. The impeachment was the logical outcome of six years during which the Clinton presidency struggled with stories about scandal—from real estate to sex—nearly all of them vaporous. While many Americans were not pleased with what the president had done, they were even less happy with the Republican Congress for allowing such issues to consume national debate and paralyze a presidency. Clinton left office extremely popular.

Some of the Obama standards are a good thing for the nation. We want public officials with fewer ties to K Street and lobbyists and who have paid the taxes they owed. But the standards that focus on the personal dimension of a job applicant’s life, while understandable given the politics of our time, are a painful reminder of the damage that scandal warfare has caused to the body politic. One of the most tangible costs, one that is impossible to measure, is the lost opportunity for great leadership that never make it into the public square.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.