The Corner

Politics & Policy

On Presidents and Character

Today, Jonah has written about President Trump and the White House staff. He says, in essence, You can shake up the staff all you want — but the president remains the president.

I thought of Jim Buckley — James L. Buckley — the senator, judge, and writer. (And all-around prince.) In a column earlier this year, Jack Pitney, the Claremont political scientist, quoted him. What was he quoting? A piece that JLB wrote for National Review, in April 1974. We republished it two years ago.

In 1974, JLB was the “sainted junior senator from New York,” as his brother WFB referred to him in print. In his piece for us, Senator Buckley was talking about “what historians call a ‘crisis of the regime.’”

Buckley explains,

A crisis of the regime is not like a political confrontation or labor dispute or economic recession or any other specific and limited difficulty. A crisis of the regime is a disorder, a trauma, involving every tissue of the nation, conspicuously including its moral and spiritual dimensions.

He goes on to write,

Inevitably the president is the focus, the essence of the crisis of the regime; the linchpin of its entire structure. It could not be otherwise. The character of a regime always reflects and expresses the character of its leader. It is he who appoints his executive staff. If he does not explicitly command what his aides and agents do, they in any event do what they sense and believe he wants them to do. The captain is responsible for his ship, the commander for his army.

Let me engage in some preemption, if I can: “Is Nordlinger saying that we’re now at Watergate time?” No. But what Jonah says in his column today and what JLB said, those years ago, go hand in hand. Don’t you see it? Doesn’t it take something like an act of will not to?