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Ethics Versus Policies

By Tanya Dutta

Is the character of the candidate more important than the beliefs he or she holds?

This has been the age-old question in American politics. With every election, the question is revisited. At times, the American people make a surprising choice, disregarding character issues and instead questioning policies. In a recent ABC News poll, 73 percent of American thought that a president who was empathetic and listened to the public was more important that a president with the "highest personal character."

In truth, Americans have always been able to put policies in front of character. Unless the character flaw was egregious and specifically affected the public, they could disregard it. The private life of the country's leader has often been less important than the direction the country was going.

As far back as 1828, the presidential candidates bandied about the character issue without having it make an impact on election day. General Andrew Jackson met his wife while she was married to another man. After she received a divorce, she married Jackson; however, they found out some time later that the certificate of divorce was not legal, and therefore their marriage was invalid. John Quincy Adams, Jackson's opponent, took full advantage of this circumstance to denounce his rival as a man who lived with an adulteress. Some thought these discourses intruded too much into the personal life of Jackson. But many denounced Jackson for his seeming immorality.

However, by election day all this was put aside. Jackson won with 56 percent of the popular vote. The American people were able to quell any doubts they had about his moral character in favor of his policies and his "newcomer to Washington" approach.

From what the national media tells us, presidential candidate Robert J. Dole seems to have led a more exemplary private life, although newspapers rarely mention his divorce from his first wife. Yet Americans seem still to prefer President Clinton, even though they suspect him of innumerable wrongs, from Filegate to Whitewater. Even after the resignation of adviser Dick Morris, his position in the polls has not really changed. He still leads Dole by at least 10 points.

Either the spin doctors are getting better than ever, or the president is no longer considered the ideal that all Americans should venerate; the position is no longer reserved for the most righteous and moral person who has led a good life. If this is due to the degeneration of America's morals, they must have withered at least before 1828.

However, the more likely reason for this trend in voting is the way people view the office of president. The instrument of change is only incidental to the changes themselves. The president is only a platform of ideas; the face in front of the platform of ideas; the face in front of the plarform is not very important. He must be able to conduct himself with proper etiquette, present a somewhat photogenic yet presidential appearance and spell potato correctly. Other than that, the ideas presented in the conventions and in paid advertisements are what people are voting for.

But this brings us to the problem of what to do after he has been elected. We have just chosen someone with poor ethics to lead the country. And then we all mourn the loss of character in Washington. Somehow, we think that the position of president will imbue those who rise to it with all the moral character they need but didn't have before the election. It is a never-ending cycle: Americans do not rate character high enough to base their vote on it alone and then are disappointed by the corruption of government.

It is difficult to draw a line between public and private lives of politicians. Although probing the lives of candidates only gives fodder for crude sensationalism, any alleged breaches of ethics while in office should be investigated. But the American people have already showed us that they don't care that much about ethics. When they are again disappointed with their representatives, we can only urge them to remember on the next election day.

Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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