For leaders, legal isn’t good enough. The high-decibel debate over Donald Trump’s taxes is just the latest of many examples we’ve seen lately, and they’re all reminders to leaders that staying blamelessly within the law may keep them out of jail but won’t protect them from being disqualified by potential followers. Their standards are almost always higher than the law’s. Consider:
-Media on the left and right see the recent revelation of Trump’s operating loss carry-forward as big trouble for his campaign even though no one alleges it was illegal. Many voters can’t embrace a potential leader who, unlike them, may not have paid income tax for 18 years. It’s true that all that tax-free living resulted from his losing almost $1 billion, but how come such a disastrous loss didn’t prevent him from continuing to live in a Fifth Avenue penthouse and travel in a private jet?
Other apparently legal but unsavory behavior has bedeviled Trump. The Center for Public Integrity, which won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize, yesterday revealed that the Trump Organization did business with Iran’s Bank Melli, which federal authorities have linked to terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. The Trump Organization has also sold apartments to the government of Saudi Arabia – perfectly legal, but Trump has attacked Hillary Clinton because the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from the Saudi government, which he said should be returned.
-Of course Clinton has her own problems of exactly the same kind. When the FBI decided in July not to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department in connection with her private email server, her campaign’s top talking point seemed to be “not indicted” – a weak claim for an aspiring president. Similarly, it was perfectly legal for her to collect millions of dollars from Wall Street firms for making speeches, but many voters think it smells bad.
Looking further back into her history, one finds a nearly endless trove of incidents with the same traits, legal but ugly. Making nearly $100,000 trading cattle futures, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance in the Clinton White House of law firm billing records in connection with the Whitewater scandal – she was never convicted of or even charged with any wrongdoing. But many voters just don’t like it.
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Two people with clean legal records are nonetheless the most distrusted and least favorably regarded presidential candidates in the history of opinion polling.
It’s tempting to imagine that we’ve always demanded much more than strict legality from our leaders, but it isn’t so. Instead of “legal isn’t good enough,” there have been times when the opposite view prevailed: Illegal wasn’t bad enough. Starting in the 1920s Texas voters twice elected Miriam Ferguson governor on the explicitly stated basis that she would merely carry out the wishes of her husband, Jim Ferguson, who had been impeached as governor and barred from holding public office. In the 1990s, Edwin Edwards ran for governor of Louisiana on the informal slogan, “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” He won.
Those were the days.