The importance of character in the presidency


In a president, character everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant;….but you can ‘t buy courage and decency, you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him”
Peggy Noonan, Character above all, (New York, Simon, 1995).

BY NOW, after nearly six years of President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd, Noonan’s penetrating point should have sunk in with us. The things we found in the man – his lack of empathy for people in distress; his vindictiveness toward political rivals and enemies; his inability to admit mistakes and accept responsibility; his gutlessness in the face of crisis and challenge — they all add up to a character flaw.

We did not subject Aquino’s record and his character to a checkup during the 2010 campaign; we were inundated by the claims of sainthood for the just departed President Cory and the claims of heroism for his father Ninoy. We absolutely had no idea that the son Noynoy had some missing parts.

Presidential elections in this country come in the shape of a hexagon (occurring every six years). And now, we stand again on the threshold of another momentous choice.

This time, we must get the decision right. This time, we should look all the gift horses in the mouth. This time, we should subject each one to a character check.

Because as Ms. Noonan (Wall Street Journal columnist, author, and peerless presidential speechwriter) said, you can’t rent or hire courage and moral decency while on the job.

Our next president must bring those things with him to Malacañang.

Distracted by the sideshows
All this time – in the lengthy run-up to the election campaign and the elections — our attention has been distracted by the sideshows:

1. The 25 sub-committee hearings in the Senate, which sought to establish Vice-president Jejomar Binay’s purported greed and graft-ridden past, but which in the end came to no credible conclusion.

2. The saga of Grace Poe’s eligibility-challenged quest for the presidency, and her sappy message about the plight of foundlings.

3. The zig-zag march of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to his place in the roster of candidates, highlighted by a bizarre, profane speech launching his candidacy.

4. The selection of Mar Roxas as BS aquino’s successor, and his incredible decision to adopt a synthetic slogan, platform, and image for his candidacy for president.

5. The almost imperceptible launch of Sen Miriam Defensor- Santiago’s third run for the presidency, which to this day still has to show some signs of life.

My two sons, who will be voting for a president for the first time, tell me that this is like being presented with five false choices to pick from. Each horse looks lame.

I tell them to hold on, this is going to be finally a test of character. Who is the one most fit and most ready to be president of our country of over one hundred million?

The character factor
The popular cliché is to demand that each candidate must present their platforms and visions for the presidency, as a minimum requirement to be taken seriously.

But many people might mistake a platform for a raised stage. So I have shifted my sights to the need for the nation to know who are these people seeking the presidency, and what qualities of character and achievements they will bring with them to the office.

When put in this way, people, high and low, will know what we’re talking about. They deal with character and characters every day.

Public policy professor James P. Pfiffner, in his book, The Character Factor, writes that the issue of presidential character needs to be secured from two pernicious habits of thought in public life: from relativism on the one hand, and from cynicism on the other.

Relativism would have us believe that moral judgment is hopelessly subjective and that we ought not to judge others’ behavior. One variant of the relativist perspective argues that partisanship makes fair judgment impossible.

Cynicism look at unacceptable behavior on the part of presidential candidates and presidents and conclude that “they all do it,” so why even bother to distinguish good from bad behavior.

But the fact is, we must exercise judgment over them, and they do not all do it. They are not all alike. Some presidents and candidates do some things well; and others very poorly.

We should not settle for summary judgments that some candidates have “good character” and others have a bad one. The reality is that judging character is subtle and complex. Citizens, no less than pundits, must judge the behavior of presidents, and the fitness for high office of those who aspire for the presidency.

“The ordinary and common sense way of talking about a person’s character,” writes Professor Pfiffner, “encompasses a number of traits that include trustworthiness, self-restraint, respect for others, the willingness to accept responsibility, self-restraint and compassion.”

Though these traits make sense when applied to people in everyday life, their application to presidential candidates and presidents is more complicated for the following reasons:

First, we expect more from a president than that he or she be a good person.

Second, we expect a president to exercise his considerable political power to lead the country forward.

And, third, we expect a president to be a statesman, above petty politics, and to represent what is best in our nation.

Three qualities for a successful presidency
Professor Pffiner concludes his perceptive study of presidential character by highlighting three qualities that are indispensable for a successful presidency. these are:

1. Likability — in our media- driven age, the people want their president to be friendly, accessible and emotionally close.

2. Moral leadership —people want their president to be a role model, to provide inspiration for people entering public service.

3. Effective governance – while personal likability and moral leadership are admirable, the bottom line of the presidency is effective governance. Presidents must ensure that the machinery of government functions effectively to fulfill the national purpose.

Without effectiveness, there are only dreams.


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  1. I have learned through the years that any president we elect will not solve all our problems, so I don’t expect much. This country has become so obsessed with who becomes president as if the destiny of the nation anchors on who sits in malacanang. I am reminded of the wise words of columnist Tony Lopez who said even if the Philippine president is a dog, it won’t matter and life would go on. We set too high expectations on presidential candidates and yet the constitution only prescribes minimum requirements for the highest post, that come the filing of COC a lot of prexy wannabes end up as nuisance bets. Then it’s onto the circus during campaign period, with false promises and black propaganda being thrown about in equal measure. After all the drama and fanfare ends during proclamation, it all ends the same no matter who wins, the country remains in the doldrums, unable to move forward and succeed. I’d rather that the government don’t exist and we ordinary people can live our lives not depending on any higher power than God and on ourselves. The moment we realize that government is just a necessary evil in society, we become more determined to work for our own betterment. But the moment we look up to the president as a Messiah, we will all continue to be disappointed.

  2. With all due respect to the opinion of others, 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 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.

  3. The qualities that the author mentioned, a president must have in order to be successful, do not exist. Philippines is in a very bad shape right now, and it needed to be fixed quickly. We need to hurry up with the election and put a president in place, that can get the country under control and moving again.

  4. Emilio Marayag on

    Well researched commentary. Character defines a person and scholars seek explanation to some leaders’ performance. As an adage puts it: great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small/mediocre/little minds discuss people.

  5. direct to the point, I live in manila for almost all of my life and for my past experience and my observance, our Filipino votes still rely on popularity and hear say. Their mind were poison by the media who favors their candidates esp the yellow regime. This is because of lack of good education of the filipino people. this is the key, why the filipino voters were still DUMB.. iam sorry but this is true..
    in my opinion only Merriam Defensor Santiago is the most qualified for President of the Philippines. Kahit saan man silipin siya lang karapat dapat sa pagka Presidente at si Bong Bong Marcos for Vice President…
    i agree with Mr. Rodan Guerrero.. if you will view their network NHK Japan, napakalayo ng distansya sa ating kulture at economy.. really, Japanology, technlogoy, japafoodlogy,,,

  6. The next President will be a woman. Year of the monkey favors women candidates, and there are only 2 of them – Mirriam and Grace. Both are likable and can inspire people or serve as role model to the youth, and above all – not corrupt. Governance can be obtained through their choice of Secretaries to head certain departments of the Government just like Sec. Kim of the BIR, Purisima of the BSP and del Rosario of the Foreign Affairs Dept.

  7. Magnasee B Inay on

    The character of Binay is questionable. He and his family don’t want to face the court to defend themselves of corruption charges. Why dont they explain their amassed wealth by the billions of dollars? Binay will surely not win the elections for millions of Filipino voters are praying to save the Philippines from the corrupt family of Binay. Why don’t you just ask your boss Binay to explain his unexplained wealth by the billions of dollars in court NOW so that he will defend himself. If found NOT guilty then I will vote for him?

    If these remarks will be deleted by the columnist or MT, then it is true that you are under the payroll of Binay.

    • Lahat ng elected officials even in the public service are all CORRUPT. Why are single out only Binay. How many times VP told everyone that he will face the accusations in the the proper court not in the kanggooro court.Wait kalang malapit na election. Kung matalo si Nog nog that its pwede na harapin ni VP ang mga bintang sa kanya. How did you know VP will not win the election. Fens sui master kaba at lahi ka ng Intsik. Iyan ang makikitid na haters ni VP hinuhusgahan agad si VP. Effective governance ang kailangan at iyan ang experto ni VP. Im sure you will not vote for Him. Anyway yung isa katulad mo na di iboto si Binay. hundreds fold naman ang kapalit ng boto mo. GO BINAY GO>>>>>2016>>>>

  8. To this author, what is your point ? You have pointed numerous writers without telling your viewers the specific point you want your readers to look for as president. We do not know the traits of these candidates. Do you presume we know your choice base from your various ideas of various authors you pick ? I guess I wasted my time reading your expose.

    • It is up to you to choose to the max….Mr. Makabenta gives guidelines in order for you to pick the best next leader….try to weigh each candidates everything and all situations are adjustable….Make your own choice for you not to blame if time comes that the President of Mr. Makabenta’s choice is failure so if you have your own no one should take the blame because yourself choose it. Through the guidelines he shares you have now an idea to select the best leader on 2016! That’s it!

  9. Rodan Guerrero on

    I am so sorry to argue some of Mr. Makabenta`s opinions regarding the presidency. In my own view, as we know very well, every country has its own cultures and traditions. We have a different cuture with Japan, US etc and this is the reason why I disagree, We have our our own, thus if a system is applicable, it is solely for the country where the author of a certain book exists. In the Philippines, corruption and graft became the soul of our system, such that everyone who are elected keep doing the same because of temptations surrounding them. A good example is, the Philippine president is so invincible that he is vested with so much power. He appoints all occupants of appointive offices including the Judiciary and Legislative branch. How can a Supreme Court Justice or Ombudsman be impartial and snub the President`s meddling their discharge of functions and duties if they owe their positions from the President? These are few reasons why the Philippines can never abort poverty.Filipinos give preference in electing popular candidates in exchange of the competent and fit person for the position and even resort to selling their votes. Much more that election rigging is performed by the incumbent regime such that to free themselves of responsibilities and wrongdoings once they diminish from office. Why is Japan, a country slightly bigger than the Philippines, who imports everything starting from raw materials to manpower emerge to an economic giant? The reason is,the Japanese people are DICIPLINED, HONEST and HARDWORKING…3 very essential simple factors that makes Japan as it is before and today. In Japan, embezzlement of any kind is a capital offense whereas in the Philippines it is just a normal activity where politicians lead as the examples. In Japan, election is not a BIG DEAL, proof is, normally about only 30% of the voting populace cast their votes. Japanese are not concerned whoever is elected because people of doubtful characters do not and never enter politics. In the Philippines, POLITICS IS THE BEST KIND OF BUSINESS THAT ANYBODY COULD VENTURE INTO.

  10. Those three qualities you mentioned all describes Poe.
    Duterte is not seen as someone who is particularly morally upright and roxas is not seen as competent. while binay has corruption baggages.