Character And the Presidency: The Choice We Face

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak at their fir
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak at their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. Picture taken September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

"Character is the only secure foundation of the state," Calvin Coolidge said in his Lincoln's birthday address in 1924, reminding the nation of the moral model set by slain president. Indeed, Lincoln ranks consistently as one of our two best presidents in polls of historians and the public, a tribute not only to his competence but to his character. But what constitutes presidential character?

This question rightly concerns us as we face a choice between two candidates viewed negatively on character grounds by a majority of the electorate. Sadly, we must ask: which of these flawed contenders is the least objectionable?

As an exemplar, what set Lincoln apart? He had integrity, held in place by an anchor of honesty. He told the truth and could hear it. He also could manage his ego, subordinating his needs to those of the nation. He could be selfless, despite the human tendency to be self-centered. He led with moral values, and he called his countrymen to be their best selves, even at the end of a brutal Civil War. Lincoln had a passionate commitment to republican government, but his passion was channeled by the shores of honor and humility.

Against this standard, Clinton fares poorly. She has been evasive and reluctant to be forthcoming about her email decisions and content. There are also reasonable questions about the connection between the Clinton Foundation and her time as Secretary of State. She has surrounded herself by a wall of self-protectiveness, a barrier so thick it can be hard to judge the true nature of the person within. She has appealed too much and too often to subgroups of Americans, with programs catering to their self-interest without asking them to consider the broader needs of the nation and what they owe each other. She has sometimes divided Americans from each other, through both identity politics and her depiction of some opponents as "deplorables."

Trump fares much worse. He demonstrates little regard for truth. Even when his past words contradict him, he denies having said them. He peddles lies, his "birther" claim being just one example. He puts profit over principle, as demonstrated his under (or lack of) payment to contractors, the sales tactics of Trump University, and the use of the Trump Foundation for his personal business ends. He refuses to release tax returns, even celebrating the payment of no taxes. For him, "good business" is more important than good citizenship. He cannot manage his ego, launching into tirades when challenged. He strikes out not just at politicians in his own party, such as John McCain, a former prisoner of war, but at ordinary Americans - Gold Star parents, a disabled reporter, a beauty contest winner. His campaign divides Americans by race, religion, immigration status, and gender, inciting his audiences to anger and occasional physical violence. Rather than asking Americans to be their best selves, he invites their worst, as if that did or ever will "make America great." Rather than strengthening republican government, he calls its legitimacy into question, attacking its institutions and the electoral process itself. Under pressure, he lacks the psychological balance essential for someone whose finger will rest on the nuclear trigger.

In the end, Clinton, despite flaws, has demonstrated the ability to control her ego and remain balanced amidst pressure, even if that sometimes comes at the cost a lack of transparency. She has one core character trait that Trump scorns. She can admit a mistake. Though it took too long, she has acknowledged mishandling her emails. A president who cannot hear criticism and admit failure is locked in the rigid prison of error. Unable to learn, such a leader is a danger to democracy. The sentence for that crime extracts its highest cost on the nation. Trump admits no faults, no mistakes, and abhors apology. Revealingly, when asked by NBC's Jimmy Fallon if he had ever played the game "Sorry" as a child, Trump said he preferred "Monopoly."

In the end, with Clinton there are some redeeming traits and there is a chance for growth in her character. With Trump, he denies the possibility that he is not already perfect. There may be no truly comforting choice on November 8th, but there is a wrong choice. In terms of character, that wrong choice is Donald Trump.