Op-Ed: We get the candidates our undignified media deserve

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to supporters and the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on May 31.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to supporters and the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on May 31.

(Jason Szenes / EPA)

Why don’t normal people run for president? How did we get these candidates? We face, in 2016, the possibility that one of just two American families — the Clintons and the Bushes — will produce the occupant of the White House for the sixth time in the past eight elections. The alternative is a boorish carnival barker who probably has never read the Constitution. Can’t we have some better choices?

Tuesday showed why we can’t. Bill Kristol, the ever-optimistic editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, has been trying to recruit a sane alternative to Donald Trump. And Bloomberg Politics reported Tuesday that Kristol was looking at David French, a National Review writer and Harvard-educated constitutional lawyer who served in Iraq and earned a Bronze Star. French is almost completely unknown to the general public, but at first glance, anyone would regard him as the sort of accomplished, upstanding, idealistic citizen who ought to try his hand at electoral politics.

So what happened? Without anyone waiting for confirmation from French — without even waiting for Kristol to confirm that he was trying to persuade French to run — the Washington political establishment started digging for dirt.


Almost immediately Politico reporter Kevin Robillard unearthed a 2011 column summarizing a book French and his wife, Nancy, had written about their separation while he was in Iraq, discussing how they maintained a long-distance relationship in wartime. The couple agreed, among other things, that Nancy would stay off Facebook and restrict her phone and email contacts with men. Robillard summarized the column — apparently without reading the book — as saying that French “wouldn’t let his wife email men or use Facebook.”

Never mind that French, if he runs, would be facing a thrice-married serial adulterer who conspicuously avoided wartime military service, and the wife of a former president who did the same and subjected the nation to its most spectacular sex scandal. Never mind the actual experience of people who have dealt with the strains that modern combat service places on a marriage. Never mind that French’s wife is a writer (and co-author of the book), not merely a passive participant in her marriage. Nobody asked her.

The 24/7 hatchet-job machine will consume anyone who is actually sincere and candid in public.

The chattering class also seized on the fact that French writes National Review’s recaps for the “Game of Thrones” TV series. This was much derided as a sign of how preposterous his not-yet-announced run would surely be, how low his chances of success. Couldn’t Bill Kristol find someone better, the wags wanted to know? Yes, it’s so ridiculous to imagine a TV re-capper in the Oval Office, when we could elect a bona fide reality star instead.

What is perhaps most disturbing is the fact that French, in a way, is a member of the media, but that didn’t save him. Fraternity didn’t stop reporters from churning out instant opposition research at the mere rumor that French might be considering higher office. They turned on their own.

The 24/7 hatchet-job machine will consume anyone who is actually sincere and candid in public. A single tweet can race around the world before context starts lacing its boots.


This dynamic is not entirely new; tabloid news coverage, yellow journalism and unscrupulous personal attacks were a standard feature of national politics in the early decades of the American Republic. But instant-publishing technology removes even minimal restraints on pernicious gossip or baseless attacks. Anyone with a social media following can start a raging online mob without the slightest bit of reflection.

That’s why people with dignity and a decent respect for their families steer clear of elective office, leaving only people like Trump and the Clintons — people incapable of shame and hermetically removed from the life of ordinary human beings. Trump and Clinton have proved that the best defense against a career-ending scandal, failure or offense is to have too many of them for anyone to count.

Maybe David French will run for president of the United States, and maybe he won’t. Maybe he’d make a great chief executive, and maybe he wouldn’t. But if we want leaders we can admire and trust, we should give aspirants to political office a fair hearing before turning their lives inside out looking for reasons to disqualify them. If we can’t even spare a day to do that, we deserve the candidates we get.

Dan McLaughlin is a lawyer in New York and contributing editor of

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