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John Dickerson: Ruthlessness a necessary skill for presidents

  • Slate
  • Published Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Let us now praise ruthless men. And women.

The two most talked-about potential presidential candidates in 2016 are enduring public examinations of their ruthlessness.

In New Jersey, federal investigators, the Legislature and the press are looking at whether Gov. Chris Christie knew aides in his office sought to punish a local official for not supporting their boss by closing portions of the George Washington Bridge.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton is going through one of the periodic public checkups she has enjoyed since emerging on the national stage in 1992.

A new book, “HRC,” describes a carefully tended Clinton enemies list that kept track of those who had abandoned or betrayed the couple. The private diaries of a close confidante, first reported on by the Washington Free Beacon, describe first lady Hillary Clinton’s desire to punish everyone from anonymous leakers to an Arkansas publisher during her husband’s presidency.

Partisans react to these developments predictably; your opponent’s penchant for ruthlessness is a sign of his or her low character.

That’s wrong. Ruthlessness is a necessary political skill, particularly for presidents. The task is to make an assessment about whether or not a particular politician uses it effectively.

There are limits to ruthlessness – abuse of power and crippling vindictiveness – but we shouldn’t mistake signs of the trait as necessary proof a politician is locked into its excesses.

Politics is a profession so clouded with self-love, self-dealing and greed that in some cases the only way you can make progress is if you use a pickax. That means knowing how to use intimidation and retribution – and recognizing that every tool of the office can be a weapon if you hold it right.

In presidential campaigns, some voters are uncomfortable with politicians who show an aptitude for arm twisting. That, in turn, leads to a lot of wasted time as politicians pretend that they are not skilled in the activities required for the job that they’re trying so hard to get. It gets circular fast: You deceive to prove that you are not deceptive.

If voters are ambivalent about toughness in their politicians, they are particularly so about it in female politicians. One of the benefits of the Diane Blair documents is that they offer us a historical marker for national attitudes about women and power in the early 1990s before Clinton became the most influential American female politician of her time.

“What voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary,” reads a strategy memo in the files from the 1992 campaign. “While voters genuinely admire Hillary Clinton’s intelligence and tenacity, they are uncomfortable with these traits in a woman. She needs to project a softer side – some humor, some informality.”

More than 20 years later, Clinton may still have less room to appear tough than a male candidate. But the question about Clinton’s toughness isn’t limited to public perceptions about it. Now the question is: When does ruthlessness cross the line beyond its utilitarian benefits and into something more damaging?

Presidents need to be self-confident but not arrogant, focused but not living in a bubble, wise but not too professorial, a leader but not a tyrant. The Christie and Clinton stories offer us an opportunity to examine where ruthlessness should begin and end in the most powerful office in the land.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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