HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 10, 2007
From Liberty Street

Character

John Turner


This week on the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric is going to ask the presidential candidates questions designed to show the people who they really are. That's because the people - in polls and so forth -- say they care more about character and integrity than they do about policy. If I were you, I wouldn't expect any startling revelations.

Stanley Fish, in the New York Times, implies that the people are mixed up. We shouldn't be worried about character in a candidate. We should be concerned with policy. Fish comes across as being more savvy than Couric, quoting Milton, Hobbes and Machiavelli. But if you examine carefully what he has to say, you don't find any sounder advice about how to rate candidates than you do from Couric's sweety-pie blather. That's because he doesn't actually tell us what he's talking about and he certainly doesn't give us an adequate definition of character. If fact, if you look at the people, the media, and the political class itself, you discover that none of the three knows, nor cares, about the meaning of the words they use. And that is our political problem. When we don't know what our words mean, we don't know what we're voting for or against.

What is character, anyway? Does Mitt Romney have more of it than Hillary Clinton does? Does Obama's supply exceed Giuliani's? How might we answer such questions?

The implication in the media is that the candidate who sticks by his or her announced positions, regardless of the political consequences is the one with the strongest character. If that's the case, the most character-charged politician of the past century was Adolf Hitler. He never deviated. It's also the definition of a fanatic. Is that what we want?

If you were to ask the average American voter what he or she means by character in a politician, I don't think you could get two coherent sentences. Yet, that's supposedly what's determining Mr. and Ms. America's votes.

If you were to ask me, I would say, "I have no idea and that's why I never use the term and never think of it." That, at least, would be pretty close to the truth.

As far as I can tell, there is only one sensible reason to give your support to a political candidate. Among the candidates who have any chance to gain the office, he or she would be the most likely to work towards the country you want to inhabit and that you want to see bequeathed to your children and grandchildren.  Does that have anything to do with character? Maybe, but it certainly doesn't have anything to do with which church a candidate attends or what sexual activities he or she prefers. Does it have anything to do with policy? Yes, but not in the way policy is normally discussed. It's far too abstract and highfalutin to say you support policies that are good for the country. What does that mean? What is the good of the country? There are so many definitions people would put forward that if I started listing them right now and kept on till I died I wouldn't be to the end of the list. And on the list, there would be numerous items that make me sick at my stomach.

Politics should be a process in which people try to get what they want. And the best we can hope for -- as far as the process goes -- is that everybody says what that is, openly and honestly.  That, of course, is not going to happen because we always have a number of candidates who know they wouldn't have a chance in hell of getting elected if they told you what they really want. Still, to work towards a system in which all of us can be honest about our desires would help us adjudicate our differences.

Among the current slate of presidential candidates there are several Democrats I could support with varying degrees of enthusiasm. And there are no Republicans. Does that mean I think the Democrats are great, or wonderful, or perfectly in line with what I would like? No, but it does mean they would support some actions that would move the country in a direction I would like to see it go. Scarcely anything supported by the Republicans would do that. So, in November 2008, I will vote for the Democratic nominee, not in a state of ecstasy but with confidence that he or she will tend more to bring forth the country I want than any Republican possibly could.

It's a simple political stance but at least it allows me to cast my vote knowing what I'm doing. And, I'm pretty sure that if all citizens did that we would have a more healthy society than we have now -- even taking into account the difficulty of defining health in a society. If that were to happen, whatever the president's character was wouldn't much matter to me.


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