Holding Out for a Hero – Why Character Still Matters

Don’t you hate it when you get a song wedged into your thought process for a few days? My latest ear worm is that eighties hit from Bonnie Tyler featured in the movie, Footloose.  Most of my ear worms are random songs that float into my stream of consciousness, but I know this one bubbled to the surface for a reason. Thinking about which GOP presidential hopeful’s name to write down in the Iowa Caucus in January has me thinking, “Where have all the good men gone?”

Where is a leader of good character when you need one? The fabric of American history is woven with political men and women of character. The honesty of George Washington who chopped down the cherry tree. Young Lincoln who walked miles to correct an insignificant error of accounting. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House. Nathan Hale, who regretted he had but one life to give for his country. There once was a time when an individual’s character, principles and virtues were the first qualifications laid on the table when one was considered for political office. In the more than two centuries since the U.S. was founded, there has been a great shift in public attitudes toward the importance of character development. In 1790, the U.S.’ first President, George Washington, wrote to his nephew that “a good moral character is the first essential in a man.” Lately we have been having a national debate over the issue of the private actions and personal character of public officials. Specifically we have been confronted with the issue of whether such a person ought only to be judged by his official performance in office, or also by his personal actions and his private lifestyle. In 2011, does character count?

On both sides of the aisle, Americans seem to hold a double-standard as to whether character indeed matters. Liberals, who professed to be appalled by the one accusation against Clarence Thomas, dismissed President Bill Clinton’s behavior as no big deal. Conservatives argued at the time, that character mattered. Liberals replied, in effect, that it didn’t. In 2008, Democrats argued that as long as you can get the job done… it really doesn’t matter what kind of character you have. In fact, a majority of Americans seemed to have felt that way and Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.  Conservatives argued that character did indeed matter. We held up the tenet that “you can always recognize a man’s true character by the people he surrounds himself with” when discussing President Barack Obama’s past associations. Over the years, President Obama kept company with some disturbing characters. He connected himself with domestic terrorists like William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.  He attended the church of an anti-American, racist minister, Jeremiah Wright for over 20 years. He is tied to corrupt people like Tony Rezko and corrupt organizations like ACORN. In our wiser moments, we have always understood that character, broadly defined, is important to possess for those in high public office, in part because it tells us whether our leaders warrant our trust, whether their word is dependable, and whether they are responsible. And one of the best indicators of character is the people with whom you associate. This is basic, elementary-school level common sense. Its something we are imparting to our nine-year-old son. As parents, we want him to hang around with the ‘right’ crowd instead of the ‘wrong’ crowd. We argue that the members  of the latter crowd would be a bad influence on him, it would reflect poorly on him, and he might end up getting into trouble.  What applies to my 9-year-old son should also apply to a presidential candidate.

Today it seems we have thrown out the tape measure when it comes to character. While we are busy implementing “Character Counts” programs in the nation’s classrooms to teach our children the importance of good character, we dismiss the notion that good character is required of our leaders. Look to former Godfather’s CEO and GOP presidential candidate, Herman Cain. People collectively booed when Maria Bartiromo asked Cain a question about the harassment allegations during a recent CNBC debate. I don’t know if the allegations are true or not.  Based on the booing and some of the commentary among conservatives it seems not only that we do not believe the accusations, but also that they wouldn’t trouble us even if they were true. But, I am not just talking about what happens behind closed doors. Look to Mitt Romney for yet another example of the notion that character no longer matters in the run for the White House. Former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney  is a mercenary politician who treats principles as a means to greater power. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post sums Romney up like this, “Mitt Romney runs for president with the eye of a venture capitalist. He sees the profit in certain positions, discards those that are no longer profitable and moves on. He was pro-choice when it did him some good, instituted a health insurance plan that he now denounces and once supported amnesty for some illegal immigrants. Richard III offered his kingdom for a horse. Romney offers his principles for some votes in Iowa.” Willing to sell his proverbial soul for the Oval Office. Character doesn’t seem to matter either when it comes to our newest front runner; Former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich.  The fact that he teamed up with Al Sharpton on an education project seems of little importance. It matters not that Sharpton stirs violence and racial divisiveness at every opportunity. Abie Rubin mentions in a recent commentary that even though the project is over, Newt continued to act chummy with violence-inciting Al Sharpton even calling into his show and praising him for doing good things. Their seemingly continued relationship seems of little consequence as long as Newt can eviscerate Barack Obama in a debate and win. When it comes to finding good presidential material we seem to be willing to trade character for conduct and integrity for achievement. Its something that is starting to keep me up at night. It bothers me.

How do you separate the content of a man or woman’s character from their ability to lead? This question begs another, is the president just simply a worker bee in the hive of our nation? Is the role of the president to just be a mechanic of foreign policy and domestic concerns? Usually when we hire a tradesman to fix our house, we don’t care much about his personal morality. All that matters to us is that he can get the job done. Is that the way we view our president? Is he simply a mechanic, a contractor, a hired gun, of sorts? Or is he something more? Now, you might not care about the private ethics of your contractor, though you may. You might be careful about the kind of person you choose for those big jobs. Even contractors should be honest, one might argue, that dishonesty or immorality in one area of life might result in dishonesty and immorality in other areas of life. But one could argue that a contractor is valuable because he builds well and not because he lives well, that doing the task is the only thing that matters. Would you have the same attitude, though, about somebody who was to be a public spokesperson for you or your family, somebody that was going in your name? Would you care about the ethics of someone who was speaking to your children, or planning your future, laying the foundation for things that would deeply effect you personally?That’s different, it seems to me, because you’re not just talking about a contractor. You’re not just talking about somebody who will get a specific job done. You’re talking about a representative, an ambassador, someone who will represent you in a respectable way. You’re talking about someone who is planning your future. You’re talking about a role model, aren’t you? You are talking about a leader aren’t you?

Can someone lead without being of good character? Of course. In the Old Testament, Ahithophel (his name means “brother of folly”) was a statesman and counselor of kings, who enjoyed such great fame and popularity that his counsel “was as if a man inquired at the oracle of God” (2 Samuel 16:23). Ahithophel was a very wise and astute counselor. A more competent adviser could probably not have been found in all Israel. In his official capacity this was man without peer. But the issue here is more than competency. There is a character issue here. Ahithophel betrayed king David. Ahithophel was an opportunist. He had been advisor to King David (2 Samuel 15:12), until Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6), and then gave his allegiance to Absalom, apparently in the belief that he would somehow overcome David. He conspired with Absalom to the degree that David prayed, “O LORD …. turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Samuel 15:31). Apparently, Ahithophel was adept at using psychological warfare to accomplish his “agenda.” Then, as if that were not foolishness enough, he seemed to forget the strong-hearted character of David, and advised a military operation that promised to frighten and overcome David, and bring his followers to their knees before Absalom (2 Samuel 17:1-3). Due to his efforts, he had the elders of Israel smiling and nodding at his brilliance (2 Samuel 17:4). Why was he willing to betray David so quickly? Ahithophel was Bathesheba’s grandfather. It may be that Ahithophel had never forgiven David for this. He may have taken this opportunity to avenge his daughter and Uriah, his son-in-law. These were after all crimes, both adultery and murder, that under the laws of Israel were punishable by death.

God had forgiven David and God had himself pronounced the judgments that would result from his sin. God had declared that his sin was put away and that David would not die. It seems that Ahithophel could not accept this. It seems that he continued to bear a grudge against David and to secretly plot revenge on him. His bitterness against and hatred of David caused him to cast aside God’s judgments in this matter and to substitute his own. It caused him to break his oath as a public official, his oath to David and to David’s God, the covenant that he had sworn, and to plot David’s downfall and death. This is preeminently a character issue. There is no question about Ahithophel’s competency to be David’s chief counselor, chief of staff, prime-minister, or whatever. However, his desire for personal revenge and his willingness to break his oath of office cast his character in a very bad light. If David had known the type of man that Ahithophel was (but not necessarily how this would manifest itself in his future actions), should he have kept him on as his chief adviser? Should David have reasoned that he was an excellent adviser? Should David have reasoned that character doesn’t matter? Should David have presumed that only performance of one’s official duties matter. Or should he have realized that one’s character will ultimately affect one’s official acts, as Ahithophel’s so tragically did? The answer here, with our hindsight, is perfectly obvious. Character matters. And Ahithophel’s character flaws almost cost David his life. Character issues can not be so easily dismissed.

Evidence that character matters in a leadership role can also be found in the story of post World War I Germany. Germany, like Egypt after the ten plagues, was destroyed. She was disarmed and allowed only minimal armed forces. She was stripped of her colonies and her naval fleet given to the Allies. The illegal (under international law) blockade of her coasts that had caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war was continued for a period after the armistice adding thousands more casualties, mainly women and children. The armistice that had been based on Woodrow Wilson’s famous fourteen points was reneged on and a harsh, punitive peace was forced on Germany. She was saddled with a huge war debt and staggering, unpayable reparations to the Allies. As the loser, she was unjustly blamed for the war, and treated as a pariah among the nations. The nation was in chaos. Unemployment rose to massive proportions. Inflation was rampant. Men were paid twice a day and the wives picked up the morning’s pay at noon so they could rush to the stores and spend it before prices doubled again. The social fabric was coming apart, revolution was in the air, and the communists were poised to seize power. The government, any government that accepted and conformed to the Treaty of Versailles, was held in contempt by the people. What happened to change all this?

A strong leader took the helm in Germany. He repudiated the hated Treaty of Versailles. He rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He strengthened the economy and restored the nation to full employment. He suppressed the communists and restored law and order. He restored the nation’s pride and made Germany again a respected power among the nations of Europe. He was able to restore to Germany some of the territory taken from her after the war where millions of German citizens had been living under foreign occupation. And he was able to do all this without involving the nation in war. As some historians have pointed out, if Hitler (yes, you guessed right) had died in August of 1939 before the invasion of Poland, and the outbreak of the Second World War, he would have gone down as one of the most effective rulers in Germany’s history.

However there is no happy ending to this story. Hitler and the Nazis went on to lead Germany to another disastrous defeat and to national dismemberment. This time they were justly looked upon as a pariah among the nations. Again, what happened? What happened is that the character issue surfaced again. In spite of standing for many things the German people justly desired, and besides accomplishing some amazing things on behalf of the nation, there were from the beginning serious warning signs about the true nature of Adolph Hitler. He had already launched an aborted coup to seize control of the Bavarian government in Munich. From the prison cell where he wound up he had written a book, “Mein Kampf”, outlining his radical program for the German nation. He conducted a bloody, murderous purge of his more radical followers to make himself more acceptable to the nation in his bid for power. Once in power he speedily moved to subvert the ordinary forms of constitutional government and to seize totalitarian power for himself. The German people however seemed prepared to overlook these “character flaws”. The nation was strong and prosperous. Employment was good. What reason was there to complain? So they looked the other way as he seized total control of the nation. They acquiesced as he established a ruthless secret police and began to crush his political opposition. They accepted the concentration camps for undesirables and the politicization of the justice system to serve the ends of the Nazi Party. Finally they looked the other way as he began to implement his radical racial theories by persecuting Jews and Gypsies etc. In short the German people gave their answer to the issue that lies before the American people today. They decided that character doesn’t matter. They decided that all that mattered was performance in office. Hitler had delivered. The nation was better off than ever before. Long live Hitler! But neither Hitler nor the Third Reich had long to live. Ultimately Hitler’s character flaws brought the nation to ruin and destruction. Ultimately character mattered.

Character continues to matter today. People can argue that we should overlook character under the premise of “judge not lest you yourself be judged”. However, I believe good character and effective leadership are as inseparable as hydrogen and oxygen in water. The president we elect is not just as a drone, not just as a worker bee, not just as a mechanic, a contractor in domestic and foreign policy. He or she is an ambassador for us, a representative of the United States, a figurehead, a role model, for good or for ill. That’s why he or she should be an example not just administrative excellence–a qualified contractor–but of good character as well.  For me, good character births good governing by a leader. Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan made the following observation, “In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant…He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. White Houses are always full of quick-witted people with ready advice on how to flip a senator or implement a strategy…But you can’t buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.”

I challenge all of us, as the 2012 election approaches,  to disregard the admittedly biased mouthings of the MSM and research the candidates yourselves. Vote, not by party, but by principle. Be guided not by the opinions of talking heads and celebrities but by the dictates of your own conscience and common sense. Do not sympathize with those who have failed morally, or allow the lecherous, drunken or fiscally unsound private behaviors of someone requesting to serve as our leader to be glossed over but rather demand good character and adherence to high moral standards from those we put into positions of leadership. We are better than that. We need leaders who exemplify the standards we want our nation to adhere to who can demonstrate them to the world. We have the God-given freedom to do so, but with freedom comes responsibility. This is not someone else’s job – it is ours. We, like Bonnie Tyler, need to be “holding out for a hero”.

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