Character and the presidency – II


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.”

These are:
1. Trustworthiness
2. Respect for ourselves and others
3. Responsibility and courage
4. Caring,
5. Fairness and
6. Citizenship

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.


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  1. Only Merriam Defensor had this category for Presidency. We need a president who is smart and can be presentable anywhere in the world….Ano na ang nagyari kay abnoy, dyan lang siya sa Japan at canada at sometimes sa america, pero hindi siya invited. He is like a tourist thats all….because he cannot represent himself as the President of the Philippines…
    let me say in Pilipino language, this is what i have read .
    ang maraming salita ay maraming mali.
    ang kaunting salita ay kakaunti ang mali
    ang walang salita pero may gawa ay walang mali..
    i believe in this.

  2. Character is the first and the HIGHLIGHT to be observed to all Presidential Candidates, the meticulously knowing them deeper, the “I don’t CARE” ‘they are still alive’ are the attitude that should not be as Public SERVANT! No way Mar Roxas, I will never vote you! Go Digong!

  3. Grace Poe is an oppurtionist that is crystal clear. She grabbed the oppurtunity to become an american citizen when it suited her; she grabbed the oppurtunity to “reacquire” philippine citizenship also when it suited her to justify her acceptance of a position under pnoy; now she is trying to grab the oppurunity to run for the presidency using Fernando Poes name recall power. I WILL NEVER VOTE FOR HER! Ang mga oppurtunista ay nakakatakot dahil sariling interests lang ang proproteksyonan!

  4. Daniel B. Laurente on

    I think Mr. Yen you must also discuss the characters of the people around the character of the leader. Like the character of the cabinet members.who really having bigger influence on the leadership of any President.

  5. For me the character of any person most especially for presidential candidates, should be based on the Ten Commandments of God to serve as principles of moral behavior for the human race and good governance – as simple as that – no substitute – everything is here, to wit:


    1. Thou shall have no other Gods before me.
    2. Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
    3. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain;
    4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
    5. Honor your father and your mother
    6. Thou shall not kill.
    7.Thou shall not commit adultery.
    8.Thou shall not steal.
    9.Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    10.Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s house, thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.

    Thank you and God speed.

  6. Pilipino maharlika on


    “…Mind is the great lever of all things; human thought is the process by which human ends are ultimately answered; and the diffusion of knowledge, so astonishing in the last half-century, has rendered innumerable minds, variously gifted by nature, competent to be competitors or fellow-workers on the theatre of intellectual operation.

    America has furnished to Europe proof of the fact, that popular institutions, founded on equality and the principle of representation, are capable of maintaining governments, able to secure the rights of person, property, and reputation. America has proved that it is practicable to elevate the mass of mankind, — that portion which in Europe is called the laboring, or lower class, — to raise them to self-respect, to make them competent to act a part in the great right and great duty of self-government; and she has proved that this may be done by education and the diffusion of knowledge. America has furnished to the world the character of Washington! And if our American institutions had done nothing else, that alone would have entitled them to the respect of mankind.
    Page 105.

    In our day and generation let us seek to raise and improve the moral sentiment, so that we may look, not for a degraded, but for an elevated and improved future…. And then, when honored and decrepit age shall lean against the base of this monument, and troops of ingenuous youth shall be gathered round it, and when the one shall speak to the other of its objects, the purposes of its construction, and the great and glorious events with which it is connected, there shall rise from every youthful breast the ejaculation, “Thank God, I — I also — am an American!”…-Daniel Webster

    “…It was also Cusa who famously wrote in his 1450 The Layman: About Mind: “Mind is a living substance…. Its function in this body is to give it life and because of this it is called soul. Mind is a substantial form of power.” If the Americas, like the rest of the world, are to be saved from the economic disintegration and New Dark Age now besetting them, it will have to be on the basis of rediscovering—and rebuilding—the hemisphere, based on applying that “substantial form of power” which Cusa invoked. That process is now underway with the momentous July 15-16, 2014 summits of the BRICS nations and Unasur, sparked by Argentina’s courageous fight against the criminal vulture funds.
    Under the current trans-Atlantic financial system, as distinct from the process initiated at those summits, the region, especially its youth, has no future, thanks to the British imperial policies of looting imposed by the IMF and Wall Street for decades….

  7. Leodegardo Pruna on

    Character is reflected in human behavior. How a person acts, speaks, and behave manifest his/her character. Character commands respect and trust. What seems to be the common factor among the presidential candidates is the lack of or distorted character. And, that goes in the people in the current administration. God save and bless the Philippines.

  8. Reading further your column, voters who are desperately seeking to change this stinking daang matuwid yellow cult are still confuse and asea. Any thinking voter will agree that character is a main issue but your zeroing on Grace Poe because of her citizenship conundrum and you are again contradicting yourself.According to your pillars of the presidency only Poe and Santiago fits the description not the corrupt Binay dynasty and self destructing Duterte. But Grace Poe not Santiago has the best chance of winning against Binay whose presidential grab to power will be the worst nightmare to many filipinos.

  9. You might want to read the book “Leaders” by Richard Nixon. Miriam Defensor Santiago mentioned it.

  10. ‘Character is indispensable to credibility, credibility is essential to leadership’, and conviction is fundamental for success.

    Leadership styles and characteristics vary considerably and a great leader must have a range of strengths which can be applied as and when appropriate, including – communication, courage, confidence, credibility, core competences, and definitely character in terms of ethics & leading by example, but the one aspect which is common in memorable leaders, but very rare in Philippine politicians, (and politicians generally), is conviction, and that may help to explain a lot.

    In The Philippines the absence of ideologically based parties, the turncoats who simply ‘follow the money’, or those without principles who can easily be corrupted ensure that both the quality of leadership remains low, and any significant achievement/progress is consequently absent/scarce.
    The missing piece of the jigsaw is conviction, which is also highlighted by sons, daughters, wives/widows suddenly becoming politicians at the drop of a hat, or firing of a bullet.
    Dynastic politics as the family business is bankrupting the country, through a double whammy of corruption and incompetence.

    Leaders, and winners, must possess a burning/consuming desire, almost to the point of obsession, to make things different/better, and to succeed, and it must come from deep within.

    I have known, and worked for numerous business leaders who are innate leaders. Money and power are not their motivation, but invariably making a difference is.

    Politics in the Philippines is simply regarded as an easy part-time job without 9-5 accountability, the family business, a ticket into the social circles, unlimited travel and expenses, entitlement etc.

    Few congressmen could stand up in Speakers Corner in Hyde Park London and talk for 30 minutes on their political ideology, and not get booed! (it comes to mind since it was one of our University coursework exercises)

    From conviction comes strength, purpose, clarity, and drive.

    Too many politicians/leaders want to sit on the fence and hide behind a mask, or pretend to be what they are not. And what they really are is weak, deceitful, and hypocritical. The antithesis of a leader.

    With a conviction politician/leader you know what you are getting, and can choose accordingly. With false promises you get false hope, but ultimately only failure and frustration.

    “I am not a consensus politician, I am a conviction politician”
    Margaret Thatcher.

  11. Relative to this article, I still vividly remember sometime during my grade school, we have a year-long subject on Good Character and Right Conduct. It taught us the behavior expected of us towards ourselves and others. One do not know if todays subject Civics could compare with the details we learned during those times. The Department of Education should follow the old curriculum because it was so effective.

  12. Nonsence Beenay on

    The “six pillars of good character” that you mentioned do not qualify Binay. It is a common knowledge that questionable wealth of the Binay family was obtained through corruption. In this case, Binay should be deleted from among the candidates. Not until Binay explain his billions of pesos or dollars shall we consider him a candidate. Let us continue praying to save the Philippines from the corrupt Binay family.

    • It is always the onus of accusers to prove their allegations. Not because it is in the billions can anyone conclusively say that it came from graft. That smacks of presumptive conclusion. Anyone with just one or two million can earn billions over a long period of time if it is put in a Private Placement Program (euphemistically called “roll program”) – and tax free at that. Indeed, anyone in government of Jojo’s position can easily raise USD10M which surely can become no less than USD100M in so short a time playing in the derivatives market – more so in the buying and selling of Medium Term Notes (MTNs).

  13. All the three standards cited in the article should be viewed in the context of the candidates’ actual performance in governance:

    Binay has Makati for you to see;
    Grace Poe has the MTRCB, Senate, US citizenship and Fernando Poe to view;
    Roxas has the tuwid na daan to strenghten and rectify;
    Meriam has the Marcos legacy to explain the remedy; and
    Duterte has the Davao experience to prove his moral political leadership, effective governance untainted by corruption, his likability among the Davao residents is no question. To be sure, go to Davao to appreaciate good governance at its finest.