Of Candidates and Character

On Sept. 4, 1976, a 30-year-old man was pulled over for drunk driving in Kennebunkport, Maine. This man is now running for president, and as voters go to the polls today, they are faced with a question: Does it matter?

The issue of character, although not always explicit, has hung gloomily over this election since the last days of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. At that time, some held that private sins, once admitted, could be forgiven and swept under the rug as "youthful indiscretions" irrelevant to one's presidential functions--that in the case of Clinton, the extramarital could be considered merely extracurricular. Others, many of whom now find themselves uncomfortably defending Texas Gov. George W. Bush, demanded that the president excel all his countrymen in virtue, a requirement that Jimmy Carter might pass but that John F. Kennedy '40 would surely fail.

As the impeachment debacle showed, both schools oversimplify the public's complicated conception of character. What, then, do we want in a presidential candidate--what is character that we are mindful of it?

It may seem be crass, but most Americans pick candidates based on predictions of what they will do for us in office. Character is part of a results-oriented package that indicates what, as a nation, we are getting for our vote. Most Americans do draw a distinction between private and public life, and we recognize that imperfect individuals can still be president--indeed, must be, for there are no other types of individuals to be found. But this does not at all mean that in entering the voting booth, one should leave one's moral judgment at the door: even the most private of flaws can make a real difference in how a leader will use the opportunity to govern.

The clearest example of this principle is the issue of trust. The election-year promises of a habitual liar would be untrustworthy and easily disregarded once in office, and our votes would be wasted on falsehoods rather than used to build real policies.

In this election, the search for an honest man yields no clear answer, as there have been plenty of falsehoods to go around. The contradictory demands on candidates almost always result in statements that strain credulity--that Texas has never executed an innocent man, say, or that one has always believed that the case of Elian Gonzalez belongs in family court. The presidential debates were full of misstatements on both sides, although one may dispute whether the mistaken anecdotes of Caley Ellis's desk and Winifred Skinner's aluminum cans are more or less important than a false claim to have supported a Patient's Bill of Rights.

Along with a candidate's personal malfeasance comes the danger of a reaction from the political opposition. No matter how irrelevant to presidential functions a past ethical lapse may be, one can be sure that eventually the Henry Hydes and Bob Barrs of the world will emerge with their inquiries and impeachment trials, and that tens of millions will be spent on subpoenas rather than soup kitchens. It is hard to avoid a feeling of anger and dismay when one considers how Clinton brought the Monica ordeal on himself, when one wonders how much could have been accomplished during the time the nation wasted. Character matters because a candidate's time in office must be spent on the nation's business, not on providing fodder for the Drudge Report.

Yet even if candidates admit their moral failings and even if their political opponents have let the issue go, there is still a more important reason why past faults can be relevant to future leadership: the need for moral authority. There will come a time in every administration when the president will be called upon to be the nation's conscience--to exercise leadership from the top, making a moral argument to stir the hearts and minds of the American people in support of a just cause.

Al Gore '69, for instance, has recognized the difficulty he faces in pushing for campaign finance laws, and now George W. Bush will always be handicapped in addressing the issue of drunk driving--one can hardly imagine Bush telling the Texas legislature, as he did in January 1999, that "for safe streets, I urge you to crack down on drunk driving by lowering the alcohol limit to 0.08." There are certain subjects on which a morally flawed candidate will never be able to importune the nation, and at a point where moral leadership is necessary, such candidates will have to recuse themselves from the nation's deliberations. What they cannot speak about they must pass over in silence, and we as a nation will lose something as a result.

We will also lose something much more intangible: namely, the role of the president as the embodiment of American ideals. For better or worse (likely better), the United States is not a constitutional monarchy. We do not have a figurehead whose job it is to give thanks for our good fortune, to address the nation in times of crisis or to place an official seal on statements and make them the words of the nation as a whole. These are not insignificant tasks--they require someone to whom we can entrust the gravity and power of our collective voice--but politicians, who must seek votes, have rarely been any good at accomplishing them. A president who cannot command moral respect has thus failed in one of the most important, but least definable, duties of office.

None of this, of course, gives any indication of who to vote for in today's election, or whether the specific flaws of any candidate disqualify him from our highest office. But Americans should know as they go to the polls that character means something more than just charm or choirboy innocence. It is, rather, one of those qualities on which depend our hopes for change and leadership over the next four years.

Stephen E. Sachs '02 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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