In a previous post, I noted that the matter of Obama’s brother bothered me due to the window that it offered into Obama’s character if it proved true. Yet, what do we mean by “character” and why does it matter in a Presidential candidate?
The core attribute of character lies in an individual’s willingness to suffer some negative emotion or sensation now in return for a benefit to themselves at a later time. We tell children that performing an uncomfortable, boring task “builds character” because we understand the utility of a person being able to force themselves through such a task. In social interactions, we define character as a willingness to suffer personal loss for the advantage of others. Accepting blame to protect another or refusing to steal when one could do so without risk, reveals character.
Politicians in particular faces decisions in which they must sacrifice their own political welfare and ambitions for the common good. Their individual willingness to decide to hurt themselves for the good of others defines their political character. In the case of governors and presidents, the choices can literally mean life or death for others.
Truman suffered greatly from accusations that he was soft on communism, because he would not reveal the subtle, covert war he waged against communism both at home and aboard. The same fate befell Eisenhower. Kennedy, by contrast, rode to office crying about a missile gap even after Eisenhower showed him classified intelligence showing no such gap existed. We spent billions in defense dollars counteracting a phantom threat. Likewise, to this day, many people defend Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs by saying he had to undertake a doomed plan or face a political threat from hardline anti-communists. (In other words, he sent hundreds of men to their deaths to protect his political fortunes.) Nixon’s lack of character led to his resignation, which empowered the Left to abandon Indochina to a democide that killed millions.
Character should matter most to those who support specific politicians based on policies those politicians espouse. Clinton serves as a textbook example. Millions of Americans invested their political hopes in him, yet his arrogant, selfish, impulsive nature led him to jeopardize all those hopes for mere carnal pleasure. Clinton’s lack of character hurt the people who believed in him the most, all the more so because he let them make fools of themselves defending him. He weakened the office as a whole by raising the possibility he carried out military or other actions as means of distracting attention from his personal failings.
Character in politicians is devilishly hard to judge. We see in a politician only a carefully scripted persona. Kennedy created a persona of vitality, sacrifice and courage, yet in reality he was ill, self-indulgent and put personal political consideration above the public good in every area from civil rights to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eisenhower presented the persona of a kindly but out of touch grandfather while masterminding an effective covert war against communism.
In the current race, we do at least have an idea of McCain’s character. During captivity, the communists gave him the choice of going free after serving as a propaganda tool for them, or of choosing the good of the cause of freedom and the welfare of his fellow POWs. McCain put the welfare of others before his own and paid for it with five years of brutal captivity.
With Obama, we have few clues to his character. Many confuse support for particular policies with good character, yet those who crave power will support any idea that grants the power they seek. Instead we have to look at the non-political actions a politician takes as clues to his character. Pre-election revelations of Clinton’s betrayal of his wife presaged his betrayal of the people who supported him. The fact that he could not restrain himself for the good of his family indicated that he could not restrain himself for the good of his supporters or the country.
I find the story of Obama’s brother troubling because it could indicate that he doesn’t actually care about people but only supports redistributionist policies out of a desire for political power. The story suggest that Obama will not sacrifice his own welfare for the welfare of others. That in turn suggests that when faced with a choice between his own political fortunes and the good of the country, or the ideals of his supporters, he will choose the former. (Indeed, his tack to the center on FISA may already indicate this.)
People who support the ideas Obama espouses should be the ones most concerned by his character. If he cares only for himself, he may abandon those ideas to gain and maintain power. Worse, he may place the entire country in jeopardy at some critical moment.