Dear Editor:

The debate concerning artists and morality has been raging for centuries. We can put the question this way: Can the art be truly good if the artist is truly evil? Or perhaps this way: Does the moral depravity of certain artists diminish the aesthetic value of their work?  

For example, does the fact that Wagner was an egomaniacal libertine and a shameless anti-Semite pollute the quality of his music? Or does the fact that Caravaggio was a brutally violent murderer render his paintings less beautiful, or perhaps even repulsive?

Most of the commentary in this debate comes down on the side of not allowing our moral values to influence our aesthetic sensibilities, or vice versa. Goodness and beauty both involve value judgments, but they should never be confused. Wagner, one might say, never wrote an anti-Semitic chord in his life, and who would describe even the most just of wars as beautiful?

These days we have what appears to be a parallel debate playing out in the domain of political discourse. We needn’t go far before meeting up with folks who will agree that Donald Trump is the most vile and loathsome creature ever to enter American public life, and yet they might go on to extol the excellence of his policies. Just as bad people can make great art—the argument goes—so can bad people make America great.

The idea that the moral character of a U.S. president is irrelevant to the presidency amounts to a gross misunderstanding of the expectations that Americans have always brought to the office. Other countries may accept a leadership model that puts a firewall between moral character and political aspiration, but most Americans have found such a model unacceptable.  

Our traditional model of the presidency has been one of moral leadership as well as political expediency. And this means that all presidential behaviors—both personal and political—are likewise relevant in judging fitness for office.  

We know that racist rhetoric from the White House inspires overt racism in the streets; and we know that bully-ish behavior in a president will embolden bullies on the playgrounds. Callousness, mendacity, vulgarity, bigotry and naked selfishness in a president will effectively come to justify such behaviors in others.

It goes without saying that no president in American history has ever embodied the perfect balance of moral decency and political sagacity, but that does not mean that we should lower our expectations. The general elections this fall will tell us whether and to what extent we have done so.

Loyal Rue