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.