In my column last Tuesday (“The Importance of character in the Presidency,” Times, February 2016), I gave no indication that I would write a series on the subject. By all appearances, it was a one-off column, to be revisited only if required.
Having published the column, however, I am constrained today to produce a second piece on the subject of character and the presidency, because my column provoked a lively debate among my readers, with some gratified by my effort and others disappointed by it.
Reviewing the column, I found that I left some things hanging in the piece.
I did not clinch my argument that character is vital to a successful or good presidency. I edited out too much significant research in the hurry to meet my deadline and to fit it into the 1,000-word length.
The biggest piece missing in the column is the lack of a definition of the term and concept: character. I left it hanging in the air, as though thinking that readers will supply it themselves. I had surrounded my subject with plenty of asides; but I did not get to the heart of the matter.
I apologize to my readers for the shortcoming, and I hope this second piece will help rectify any confusion that the column caused.
The omission of a definition was aggravated by a missing word in the epigraph (a quote from Peggy Noonan) which I used to kick off the column. It occurs in the very first sentence of the epigraph. The sentence should have read, “In a president, character is everything.” The verb “is” is missing in the published column, which made a whale of a difference.
No consensus definition of character
In Character Above All, a book which I cited in the column, the editor Robert A. Wilson asked 10 eminent American presidential biographers to write analyses of the character of a particular American president.
The book chapters included contributions from the following authors:
o Doris Kearns Goodwin on Franklin Roosevelt
o David McCullough on Harry Truman
o Stephen Ambrose on Dwight Eisenhower
o Richard Reeves on John Kennedy
o Robert Dallek on Lyndon Johnson
o Tom Wicker on Richard Nixon
o James Cannon on Gerald Ford
o Hendrik Hertzberg on Jimmy Carter
o Peggy Noonan on Ronald Reagan
o Michael Beschloss on George H. W. Bush
“What is striking about these insightful essays,” says my other source of ideas, Professor James Pfiffner (author of The Character Factor), “ is that though each writer focuses on presidential character , each has a different definition or approach to character. There is no consensus or common theme to the essays.”
Professor Pifffner himself used as his working definition of character as “the values, principles and habits of behavior that mark an individual, and influences his behavior.”
There is widespread belief in American politics and journalism that presidential character is as important as intellect, organizational ability, television presence, or effectiveness in public speaking.
Toward a working definition
What follows is my working definition of character, which I distilled from my readings and my research on the subject.
At a mundane level, I remember how character education used to be part and parcel of our early schooling. In grade school, we studied civics earnestly. My parents, who were both schoolteachers, used to remind me of the importance of good manners and right conduct.
When Martin Luther King said he looked forward to the day when all Americans would be judged solely “by the content of their character,” he was talking about a person’s essential qualities.
The movies are also full of references to the idea of character. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” there is a scene where a guy called Wolf advises a young woman, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”
Along the idea of civics, one citizen educator developed a program that teaches what he calls the “Six pillars of good character.”
2. Respect for ourselves and others
3. Responsibility and courage
5. Fairness and
On his part, Professor Pfiffner considers as central to the definition of good character the traits of truthtelling, sexual fidelity, and promise keeping. Sexual fidelity has risen in importance because of the infidelities of Bill Clinton, and the promiscuity of John F.Kennedy.
Truthtelling hits the bull’s-eye in this discussion, because the nation and the public must be able to count on the president’s word. Telling the truth, particularly with respect to public policy, is an important ethical imperative for presidents.
And so is promise-keeping. A president must strive to redeem the promises he makes during the campaign.
Your character is your fate
My first presidential campaign was in 1969, when as a young man, I joined the Meddis group of then Labor Secretary Blas Ople, a top strategist of President Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos was running for reelection against the opposition and Liberal Party bet, Sergio Osmena Jr. Because of Osmena’s reputation, and unsavory stories about his wartime wheeling-dealing and business schemes, the Marcos team raised the character issue against Osmeña.
It was then that I first heard the famous line from Heraclitus, “Your character is your fate.” The Marcos campaign wrapped Osmeña in it.
Osmeña lost the election in spectacular fashion. He even lost in his home province of Cebu.
I never forgot Heraclitus’s great insight that character is destiny.
Character, courage, citizenship go together. This is why Grace Poe cannot beg her way out of her citizenship conundrum.
Character is important in the presidency because the issues reaching the president are momentous and vital to the nation
New and unforeseen crises may face the country, like Mamasapano and Yolanda/Haiyan.