Two prominent conservatives have must-read pieces on the role of character in public life. Their admonitions are especially useful in making a presidential selection, but they also provide guidance for selecting anyone with public responsibilities.
Peter Wehner looks at several factors, the last of which is “governing temperament and character.” He suggests these lines of inquiry: “Which of the candidates are steady, well-grounded, discerning, self-disciplined, and wise? Are they people of integrity? Are they consumed by their resentments or are they free of bitterness? Are they disposed to view opponents as enemies? Do they learn from their mistakes and are they open to new evidence? In a crisis, do they demonstrate equanimity or erratic behavior? Are they tempted to cut ethical corners in the quest for power and success?” He also cautions against two extremes: the quest for the perfect candidate and the notion that it is futile to search for answers to these. “Greatness and excellence in human beings are the products of many different tributaries, including character and judgment. Those things are often intangible and therefore not always easy to discern. But neither are they hidden from our view, clouded in mist and shadows.”
In a different vein, Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America asks in reference to both Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich whether “the public has no right to question a candidate’s marital fidelity.” She notes that certainly private behavior is relevant in many instances. “If sexual choices have no bearing on one’s life outside of the bedroom, then we need to stop screening our intelligence community for areas in which they could be blackmailed and employers need to stop screening potential employees’ Facebook pages for embarrassing info.”But her central point is that you can’t separate private and public morality:
[I]n 1790, George Washington wrote in a letter to his nephew, Steptoe Washington, that, “A good moral character is the first essential in a man.” John Adams, Thomas Jefferson — and even randy ol’ Ben Franklin, who wrote, “Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices” — made no distinctions between moral integrity in the public or private sector.
She recognizes that their is a place for repentance and forgiveness, but not a free pass:
However, while God forgives us, there are still consequences for our choices here on this earth. Families are destroyed by infidelity, and sometimes they can be repaired, but often they can’t. Wounds heal, but scars are left behind.
Former President Harry S Truman famously said, “If a man lies to his wife, he will lie to me. And if he’ll break his oath of marriage, he’ll break his oath of office.” Republican voters — and particularly women — in America are struggling with trust in our presidential candidates. . . . Isn’t the truest test of character what you do when no one is watching? Ultimately, women may be the deciding factor in these races, and speaking as a woman, we still think character counts.
A great many people, even social conservatives, get squeamish about examining candidates’ personal lives. It’s the hangover from non-judgmental, New Agey nonsense that if followed in our personal lives, would wreck havoc. (You sure do want to judge who your friends are, and responsible parents don’t tell children that politeness or kindness is optional.)
But I tend to think that Nance is right in concluding that, especially for a president, private immorality (lying, cheating, cruelty, disloyalty) easily morphs into public failures. At the very least, routinely bad behavior in non-public aspects of a candidate’s life may help us to predict public behavior.
There are many good and decent people who have made lousy presidents. And there are a few of whom you can say the reverse. But in a job in which ever fiber of your intellectual and moral being is tested, in which your ability to evoke loyalty is critical, in which your empathy is critical to establishing public support and in which integrity is vital we should be wary of those who tell us to ignore behavior that reflects a candidate’s moral radar. Because issues come and go, most presidents face challenges never discussed in the campaign; it therefore is arguably more important to determine these qualities than to run down a check list of issues. Issues change, but character is permanent.