Presidential Character Counts

As the political circus for president gets curiouser and curiouser, I experience everything from amusement to exasperation, despair to hope to cynicism.

There seem to be a goodly number of characters running for president, but which candidates actually have character? Apparently, if a New York Times article is to be believed, judgments about personal character should be off-limits.

The article, which explores the brouhaha between Donald Trump and Fox's' Megyn Kelly, asserts that grilling candidates to the max about political issues is one thing, but that the "the battle between Mr. Trump and Ms. Kelly has been something else altogether. To begin with, Ms. Kelly was pressing Mr. Trump not on his political positions but on his character, and more specifically his treatment of women."

When in the world did assessments of a candidate's character become out of bounds? Can't we make judgments about whether we think a candidate would be "virtuous?" In fact, what if, as far-fetched as this might seem in today's charged climate, our personal choice about which presidential aspirant to vote for wasn't based solely, or even mostly, on whether we agreed with her policy prescriptions? What if that was the least of it?

What if what mattered most to us was the virtues to which she professed to subscribe, and even more importantly, could actually demonstrate that she consistently practiced?

What if, for example, you agree thoroughly with Donald Trump's stated stances on the issues, but don't like the fact, as Megyn Kelly pointed out to him, he's "called women you don't like fat, pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals"? What if, on the other hand, you disagree with many or most of the positions of a John Kasich or Ben Carson or Bernie Sanders, but find much to your liking a good many of the virtues they not only profess but actually demonstrate -- that they put character first and foremost, and practice what they preach, even if they risk their political fortunes as a result?

Am I the only one who's asked: Which candidates have the kind of demonstrated character that I can believe in? You might like what Hillary Clinton has to say on the issues, but if you conclude, based on her demonstrated actions over the years, that she's not a paragon of honesty, integrity, humility, trustworthiness, would that turn you off so much that you'd consider voting for someone who consistently puts these qualities into abundant practice, even if you disagree with some or most of her specific stances on the issues? Or would you hold your nose and vote for her anyway?

During my Constitution Cafe sojourns across the fruited plain, I met with a group of Eagle Scouts. They were astonished to find (like most Americans, they hadn't read the Constitution before this exchange), that in order to throw your hat in the ring for the highest office of the land, all you had to do was be 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and a resident within the U.S. for 14 years running. They were incredulous. So, in taking part with me in an offbeat mini-Constitution Convention, as I related in Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution, they came up with a new Constitution article and elaborated what would be required from here on out of anyone vying for the presidency.

No person except a natural born citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained the age of 35 years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States. Anyone eligible to be President must be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful (when the occasion calls for it), brave, clean, humble and reverent (respectful, and tolerant, especially of underdogs and people who think and believe differently). He or she shall be prepared, and shall do a good turn daily, and in so doing, shall further do their duty to God and country.

I can imagine how pie-in-the-sky many of today's jaded and cynical voters might consider such lofty constitutional requirements, that presidential candidates actually demonstrate -- day in and day out, year in and out -- such a demanding set of virtues. Yet once upon a time in America, not only was it the furthest thing from outlandish to make such virtues requisite among those seeking elective office, it was just about mandatory.

As I note in Constitution Cafe, Pennsylvania's original constitution, for instance, stipulated that all prospective candidates demonstrate "virtue and wisdom."

And to this day, New Hampshire's constitution, for one, states that, when it comes to its elected office-holders, "a constant adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, frugality, and all the social virtues, are indispensably necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and good government."

Consequently, New Hampshirites, too, have a constitutional responsibility to vote for virtuous candidates; as its constitution puts it, voters must "have a particular regard to all those principles in the choice of their officers and representatives," given that they have the "right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates, an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of government."

So, let's say New Hampshire's citizens elect someone whose actions show, upon taking office, that he consistently is the antithesis of the Granite State's constitutionally-required virtues. Conceivably, he could get kicked out of office on constitutional grounds based solely on that.

What if it went without saying to John and Jane Q. Public, regardless of whether such stipulations of virtues are etched in a constitution, that one should have rather unimpeachable character, at least in the public sphere?

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Transformation of Virginia, Rhys Isaac relates that 18th-centry Virginians looked at elections as opportunities to choose a candidate whose "virtue showed most clearly in their persons."

Intriguingly, they rejected among competing candidates what is all the rage these days, namely, "trials of strength between contending social classes and popular choice between rival programs." Why? Because they considered these "precisely the lines upon which ...elections should not be conducted." No tit-for-tat 'my program is better than yours' folderol based on what some focus group/survey tells them is the best way to entice voters to throw (away) their votes their way.

It almost seems too good to be true that, way back when, a typical public announcement, like this one placed in Accomack County, Virginia, in 1771, sought candidates to vie for particular offices only if they possessed a specified set of virtues.

Aspiring office-seekers in Accomack County, for example, had to demonstrate "penetrating Judgment," so that they would be able "to scan each Proposal, to view it in every Light." In other words, they had to be adept at and open to considering a wide range of options, thoughtfully examining what spoke for and against each of them, if they were even to think of running for office. They had to be 'openists,' constructive skeptics, rather than adhering to any fixed political orthodoxy that might pander to a select crowd but isn't in the country's best interests.

Candidates of yesteryear further had to have the talent of "piercing into Futurity," in order to "behold even how remote posterity may be thereby affected." Can you imagine a candidate today who had such autonomy and imaginative vision tinged with social conscience, who considered what was best not only for his society today or several years from now, but what was in its, and the world's, best interests generations hence? Such long-term vision is in short supply these days, yet it is what the world needs now more than ever.

What's more, anyone seeking to be an electedoffice-holder of 18th Century Accomack County, in my home commonwealth of Virginia, was required to regard "Measures, not Men", and accordingly, "follow his country's interest regardless of the effect of his course upon either his friends and foes." Consequently, candidates were expected to possess "that Fortitude, or Strength of Mind," which makes it possible for someone "in a good Cause to bear up against all Opposition." What? A candidate who doesn't cave in, and sacrifice principle when there is a backlash against a view that he'd sincerely held? Perish the thought, alas.

In a tongue-in-cheek essay, Andy Borowitz writes that "Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is gaining legions of new admirers by shamelessly pandering to voters who want to hear the truth." Sometimes it takes satire to get to the heart of the matter. What if all the candidates had the virtue of truthiness, of 'telling it like it is,' instead of telling us what they think we want to hear?

Would you consider voting for someone for President with whom you often disagree on specific stances, but whom you feel in your heart of hearts is practicing the virtues that you most prize? Is it time to resuscitate the tradition of old of voting for candidates on virtue-based criteria? Would our Constitutional Republic be better off if we valued above all else the content of a Presidential candidate's character, and voted accordingly?