Does Character in Politics Matter?
Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. If you’re on the Democratic side of the aisle, for example, you will dismiss the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne as an unfortunate side effect of Ted Kennedy’s lousy sense of direction. Over there on the Republican side, you’ll happily downplay Donald Trump Jr.’s obvious willingness to collude with Russian thugs in 2016 as an overabundance of youthful enthusiasm and filial piety. There’s a silver lining to this vexing question of character and politics. Our leaders aren’t saints – and this may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps we can simply defer to Machiavelli. He warned that a ruler who was too consumed in a particular virtue – generosity, let’s say – would sooner or later bring the state to ruin, fiscally or otherwise. On the other hand, qualities that most people believe indicate bad character – duplicity, for example – will be indispensable to a ruler who is trying to guarantee the survival of the state against the aggression of its enemies. And history does suggest strength of character can stand in the way of being a good leader. One newspaperman said of FDR that his first impulse in any situation was to lie; only after he’d taken the temperature of the people he was talking to did he gradually shade over into telling the truth. Roosevelt lied to the American people after Pearl Harbor, as the biographer Richard Reeves noted, by publicly denying the plain fact that the U.S. Pacific fleet had been crippled by the Japanese. Telling the truth in such circumstances – doing what “good character,” so defined, would demand – could have weakened the
confidence of the public when it was needed most. Honesty would have been a terrible failure of leadership. FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was one of the most generous, honest, compassionate, learned, and far-seeing men ever to live in the White House. It’s not clear that he ever said something he knew to be untrue. And he was an abject failure as a president. Sometimes it can seem that all the talk about character in politics – talk that ranges from humid sanctimony to arid nihilism – is simply a dodge, an elaborate missing of the point. Maybe a majority of the public is right when it says a leader of bad character would be no real threat to the health of the Republic. The reason is that the good character truly required by self-government doesn’t reside in leaders but in the people themselves. Our leaders, in other words, are simply reflections of the people who choose them. Whether this is reassuring or horrifying is a question for another time.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His
Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
42 | October 2017
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