I met now-Speaker of the House Mike Johnson early on in his first term. He came to talk to a prayer group made up of young Capitol Hill staff that met once a month. He struck me as a forbearing and well-meaning man of sincere faith. I liked him.

Upon his election to the speakership, I learned I wasn’t alone. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., one of the most centrist members of Congress, described Johnson as having “a very humble spirit” and being “approachable” and a man of “decency.” Indeed, Johnson was an early signer of the “Civility Pledge,” in which lawmakers signed up to “disagree without being disagreeable.” His speeches and style are far more Ronald Reagan than Donald Trump. A senior Hill staffer, who had predicted Johnson as speaker two weeks before he was even in the race, texted me saying, “He’s nice. That’s his main qualification.”

As someone who believes that the kind of mindless polarization that has taken root is toxic, I appreciate these qualities and think they have a far bigger effect on our politics than most realize. And this has concrete political consequences. They are certainly important given the fact that the “trust deficit” is what did in former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

On the other hand, Johnson was neck deep in the 2020 “stop the steal” efforts, the most pernicious and destructive domestic political event in my lifetime. And, at best, he’s sent mixed signals on aid to Ukraine, the issue I consider likely the most important geopolitical event in recent history. In both cases, he was either pandering to the loudest parts of his base, or truly believed in some horrible ideas. While directionally agreeing with him on items like taxes and religious liberty, the former issues are significant black marks in my book, and I believe will be so in history.

In other words, the elevation of Johnson to the speakership filled me with mixed thoughts. And it raised a difficult topic: to what degree do we “forgive” political mistakes? How does one good act outweigh a bad act as part of a political career?

It’s too early to evaluate Johnson’s legacy. But it is helpful to think about how we, as a nation, evaluate our leaders.

Perspective: Kevin McCarthy and the trust deficit in politics
Perspective: From Clinton to Trump, James Dobson was right about our moral tailspin

Conceptually, it’s useful to realize that all politicians, particularly in a democracy, do not have unlimited flexibility. A politician that repeatedly tells the majority of their voters that they are wrong will quickly become an ex-politician. And a legislator is in large part constrained by the opinions his colleagues deem viable. It is academic at best, and counterproductive at worst, to evaluate real-world politicians according to some pie-in-the-sky version of reality. Looking at the options they have available to them matters a lot more.

Of course, at a certain point, being unwilling to risk the wrath of voters renders a politician impotent. Conversely, making a real difference can be worth risking your career over. If you aren’t in this to make a difference, why hold office? Former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., lost her seat in Congress, but almost certainly had more of an impact serving on the January 6th Committee than she would have had by serving decades in Congress without controversy.

Historically, I think it’s safe to say Richard Nixon, while viewed as a consequential and perhaps even positive from a policy perspective, was never forgiven the string of lies, abuse of power and obstruction stemming from the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation. His partisans stuck with him for a long while, until they heard the tapes that most believed made Nixon out to be a cynical, calculating and crass politician. Polls taken years, even decades after his resignation, showed strong disapproval. Presidential historians are kinder, ranking him in the bottom half but nowhere near the worst, usually due to a positive take on his foreign policy.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand is widely believed to be a very successful president. On top of ending stagflation and winning the Cold War, he’s also the man that brought confidence back to America and ended the cynicism of the Nixon years and the incompetence of the Carter years, rebuilding public trust.

But Reagan excused, minimized and otherwise apologized for Nixon’s inexcusable acts in Watergate, even after Nixon had resigned. In spite of Reagan campaigning against deficits, the deficits exploded under his watch, a problem we’ve never fixed. And of course, the Iran-Contra scandal could not possibly be seen as anything but a huge fiasco, maybe not on par with Carter’s Iran-hostage crisis, but a significant flaw.

If you want another interesting historical example, think of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace, D-Ala. Most know Wallace for his belligerent inauguration address in which he declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” and for attempting to physically block integration at the University of Alabama.

But what if I told you that, when he ran for his last term as governor in 1982, he won more than 90% of the Black vote?

One might chalk this up to the fact that, by 1982, Black Americans routinely voted overwhelmingly Democrat, and Wallace, his segregationist past aside, was still a Democrat. But he also won a third of the Black vote in a three-way primary that same year. It was more than reflexive. Wallace’s campaign operative in charge of winning African American votes said that it was largely about “forgiving and forgetting the past.”

In 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm D-N.Y., an African American pioneer on the hard left, visited Wallace in the hospital after an assassination attempt that crippled him. Chisholm wished him well, also stressing she agreed with him on issues such as undue corporate influence. Wallace’s daughter said Chisholm’s visit “planted a seed of new beginnings in my father’s heart,” and in the coming years, Wallace repudiated his former racism and openly embraced African Americans. Reports are that Chisholm and Wallace became genuine friends.

While critics said Wallace’s change of heart was driven purely by politics, the late civil rights hero and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., disagreed, saying that when he met with Wallace in 1979 he was a ”changed man.”

There may be no obvious pattern to the public perception of the political mistakes and scandals above. In fact, it’s not clear when a politician can truly be seen as “forgiven,” by the public, or even historians.

But there is a lesson in the chaos.

In McKay Coppins’ book “Romney, a Reckoning,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is quoted as saying that what political leaders accomplish “by virtue of their personal character is at least as great as what they accomplish by virtue of their policies.” That gets at the core of it. Politics is a messy business and politicians act under constraints and make mistakes. The public, and even historians, accept this, particularly over time, provided they believe the politician has character and is genuinely trying.

Nixon’s policy successes are largely sidelined because his flaws are seen as going to his character. Reagan’s flaws are minimized because they are not seen as going to his. Those who forgive Wallace do so because they believe in a change in his disposition, while those who don’t look at Wallace’s early years of oppression and cynicism. Chisholm now earns the admiration even of those on the center-right, due in large part due to her humanity and consistency in her views, even when not politically convenient.

View Comments

Try applying this framework to other controversial politicians from more recent years. Say, Bill ClintonDonald TrumpMike PenceGeorge SantosPaul Ryan or Harry Reid. See where it comes out.

As far as Johnson goes, in my view, he has made mistakes, ones that some argue he knew were wrong. The question is, will the positive aspects of his character override them over time?

A return of character, or even simple respect, is at least as important as the policies or power games we get so involved in. It makes the difference between being one of the unforgiven, or those whose legacy is well remembered.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.