Blogs > Cliopatria > Pay Attention to Their Character?

Oct 26, 2004 9:25 pm

Pay Attention to Their Character?

Elisabeth Bumiller, the NYT White House correspondent, has an incisive piece in today's paper about campaign promises.

Mostly ignore them, she seems to suggest, because candidates end up breaking them, recalling that LBJ promised not to send American boys to Vietnam to do what Vietnamese boys should be doing and that Woodrow Wilson, in an earlier era, promised to keep the country out of war--and then plunged us into war.

So far so good.

But she then seems to draw the conclusion that the difficulty is that presidents have to break their promises because events change and they have to change with them. This is an obvious and not terribly fruitful observation.

And of course we shouldn't pay much attention to what they say on the campaign trail. They will say and do almost anything to win--and this has been true of presidents since the masses got the vote in the 1820s. Remember William Henry Harrison's lies about where he was born. He claimed to have been born in a log cabin. He actually grew up in a 3 story red-brick mansion on the James River in Virginia.

But then Bumiller goes on to say that what we should do therefore to correct for this inclination of presidents to lie is to look closely at their character.

She claims: "And character, historians say, is what voters should look for in a candidate as they engage in the act of casting their ballots for the nation's next president."

Well, this historian doesn’t tell voters to look at president's character.

Reading a person is difficult. Divining a person's character is next to impossible. One reason biographies are usually so long is that it takes hundreds and hundreds of pages to fully develop someone's character. And even then it's easy to go wrong. If Jefferson, for example, truly had a relationship with hi black slave, all the biographies ever written about him need to be rewritten in light of this astounding fact.

Besides, what is character? You want courage in a president? Ok. But what is courage? If a man exhibits physical courage, does that mean he will exhibit political courage? Even courage, so seemingly simple, is complicated.

Really, one reason we prefer to discuss character is because one doesn't need to know anything about anything to have an opinion about a president's character. It's an issue susceptible to public debate in a way, say, that Part A and Part B of the Medicare law are not because to discuss Part A and Part B you have to know some facts. And Americans simply do not know many facts.

And when they decide on a person's character it is apt to be on the basis of some foolish stereotype.

When party bosses used to pick presidents they would take into account the candidates' character. But the bosses' judgments were grounded in the experience that came from knowing and working with the individuals over a period of years, and often decades. Today the voters only have massaged images to go with. What kind of system puts a priority on images?

A deficient system, is the answer. And that I am afraid is the system we now have.

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