On Character

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. 

12 thoughts on “On Character”

  1. Fred Lapides,

    I guess McCain’s adultery does not count as an example of character?

    No, it does count against him. However, I think the conditions mitigate it somewhat as compared to, say, Newt Gingrich’s treatment of his first wife.

  2. I guess McCain’s adultery does not count as an example of character?

    So you agree that Obama doesn’t have much in the character dept?

    This changing the subject (tu quoque actually?) is so typical of the left. Personally, I don’t really care for McCain: he was among the least interesting from a political issues perspective of all the Republicans.

    That said, folks like Fred and Boonton, et al, will probably get me to go out and vote for McCain. This is in part because I find am finding out that Obama is a less good candidate but it is mostly because the I’m so annoyed by all of Obama’s followers.

  3. It’s all about Fred again! As usual!

    Nothing changes.

    Obama is a typical liberal. His brother can starve to death, and he can tax us all into the ground out of so-called compassion, and he has zero cognitive dissonance about these two incongruent facts. Society has to care for its victims, but their literal, genetic brothers don’t. Funny. My sister would not starve in a foreign country if I had any say in the matter. But I am one of those conservative, greed-driven, uncompassionate types!

    Feh. (Spits on ground.)

  4. If he cares only for himself, he may abandon those ideas to gain and maintain power.

    He already has abandoned both ideas and people close to him when they became political liabilities. Reverend Wright is an example.

    Pointing out that McCain is also flawed is…well..pointless. The object is not to find Jesus but to vote for the candidate who is least repulsive. I didn’t and still don’t like McCain, but his policies and his character much more appealing to me than Obama’s. It’s all relative.

  5. I guess McCain’s adultery does not count as an example of character?

    It does. However, I’m surprised to see that coming from a leftist. Weren’t you guys bellowing at the top of your lungs that Clinton’s private sexual life was none of our business – even after he committed perjury? In your words: “the question should never have been asked”. So which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

  6. As you observe, Shannon, there are many hints of character. Douglas Wilson argues in Honor’s Voice that Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd revealed much about him. I doubt that many knew that then or have since. But his sense of honor and the values we revere in him as president were all of a piece. Truman’s character was also revealed in his courtship of his wife. Steve Ambrose pointed out that Eisenhower understood men and was a good friend; Nixon, he felt, did not – but, on the other hand, Nixon’s marriage was warm and Eisenhower’s was not. I don’t know how much of this is important; I’m pretty sure that all of our great presidents made mistakes as human beings and even our worst ones had heroic moments. But patterns of loyalty, humility, affection are important.

    Heroism is not defined by a single relationship but I think we can safely see it as defined by a pattern of relationships. Both McCain and Bob Kerrey have said that they deeply regret the ways they treated their first wives – but both came back from Viet Nam changed men. Such marriages often don’t do well and the sympathy that both wives have for these men indicates that this is pretty complex territory. Thompson, too, divorced his first wife – but I always considered that early marrige and assumption of responsibility a sign of his character rather than lack of it.

    But then, I have ambiguous feelings about your point – that is, I’d rather the possibility was we would elect in Obama a man merely opportunistic than one who actually believes wealth redistribution, the cheapest kind of populism, and the weltanschauung of academic cliches were great truths he intended to do everything in his power to enforce as president.

  7. Ginny,

    …I’d rather the possibility was we would elect in Obama a man merely opportunistic than one who actually believes wealth redistribution…

    I’ve thought on this and I have to say that although the true believer poises dangers, character trumps policy for Presidents. Take FDR. He came within a gnats whisker of nationalizing the U.S. economy and was saved from himself only by the Supreme court. He had an honest, pragmatic belief in centralization. Yet, he also clearly saw the danger of fascism and before Perl Harbor place himself in danger of impeachment to help the British in their darkest hour.

    We survived the New Deal. The consequences of a Nazi victory are to horrible to contemplate.

  8. Michael,

    “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:17-18

    I’m an atheist and I know that one. Perhaps Obama should have paid attention more in church. Inspiration is a good thing but it only works if one has food, clothing and shelter. Obama’s brother sounds like proud young man but if Obama knew of his plight, or should have know, and did nothing, he’s a jackass.

  9. Character counts in the presidency, even more than ideology, because it is impossible to predict what trials a man will face in that position.

  10. ElamBend nails it.

    When I’m voting for president, I want to choose someone who:
    – will often do the best thing possible
    – will usually do something at least acceptable
    – will only rarely screw up badly

    If I agree with someone’s ideology, I expect them to make the right decisions in judicial appointments, to vote for/against or sign/veto the bills they should, and so on. Where character comes in is twofold: how they respond to the unexpected, and how they handle areas in which they personally can benefit by going against that ideology. If some foreign country does something stupid, or if disaster strikes, will this person shy away or will they take responsibility and “do what it takes” to solve the issue? If lobbyists offer big money to pass a bad bill, will they take the cash and run? If they hold a correct but unpopular position, will they stick to it and risk not being reelected, or will they follow the opinion polls?

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