Author’s note: The following was originally written in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character — character that does and dares as well as endures, character that is active in the performance of virtue no less than firm in the refusal to do aught that is vicious or degraded.
CNN commentator Van Jones could barely keep it together as he expressed his feelings on air about Joe Biden becoming President-elect. “It’s easier to be a dad this morning. It’s easier to tell your kids, ‘Character matters, being a good person matters,” he said.
If there is any lesson that our nation has learned the hard way over the last four years it has to be this one: that character matters.
Americans are sometimes seen as puritans for their long-held belief that the President is a moral exemplar as well as the leader of a government. That belief in a leader that is to quote the Boy Scouts handbook “morally straight” had started to slacken in the 1990s. When Bill Clinton was caught lying to a jury about an extramarital affair, there were some who shrugged. This is so common among European leaders, some said. It just meant that America was growing up and shedding the moralistic beliefs of the past.
Those who shrugged were aware of the number of American presidents who had women on the side. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all had dalliances not just before becoming president, but during their time in office as well. Other presidents were far from boy scouts both before and during their times in office as well.
Americans believed that as long as someone could do the job, did it matter if the President was a goody-two-shoes? What does character have to do with public policy?
It turns out, everything.
No president was perfect. Many of the people who sought the highest office in the land were people who didn’t live wholesome lives outside of the public view. Character isn’t perfection. But it is a sense of knowing what is expected of oneself, especially when one is given such a high office like President. Character is trying to live to a set of expectations and realizing that in public leadership you are asked to live a life not just for yourself, but for others. The main job of the President is to look after 330 million of your fellow Americans. Character is about having a sense of empathy for others. The President is one that should express the grief of the nation during tragedies or having the sense to let someone vent their anger at them and not respond.
When Donald Trump entered the Presidential primary in 2015, what attracted people to him was his personality. He was brash and didn’t follow convention. He wasn’t politically correct. News networks ran his rallies for hours on end. His ego-driven personality was a curiosity.
During the 2016 campaign, we also got to see his character. We saw it, but we didn’t pay attention to it. We saw him making fun of a reporter with a disability. He criticized two Gold Star Family parents. He lied and lied and lied on basically everything. He cheated on his taxes and refused to give up his businesses. America saw all of this, but we didn’t pay attention.
Then came coronavirus.
Yes, there were other opportunities that showed off Trump’s deformed character, but it was the once-in-a-century pandemic that showed everyone that the President didn’t care about the threat this virus would bring to the American people. He didn’t sound the alarm because he didn’t want people to panic which is Trump-speak for saying he didn’t want talk of this virus hurting the economy and his re-election. Because he didn’t speak out, the federal government’s response was limited. He never mourned the hundreds of thousands of America who died of coronavirus. When he acquired COVID, he still couldn’t empathize with those suffering from the disease. “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump tweeted on October 5 as he started to recover. It was an incredibly tone-deaf response to millions of Americans who are suffering from the disease and those missing their loved ones who died from COVID.
Trump’s opponent, is an exemplar in character. Biden, a man who lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident, lost his oldest son, Beau to brain cancer at the young age of 46 and dealt with heartache has his surviving son, Hunter battled with drug addiction, knows a thing or two about empathy. In early 2020, the public learned that Biden is a stutterer and has worked hard over the years to control his speech. His experience was invaluable to a New Hampshire teenager, Brayden Harrington, who also stuttered. Biden connected with the young man, giving him tips and that led to Brayden making a short speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Americans have lulled themselves into believing that one can be a raging jerk and yet get the job done. But that is a convenient lie we are telling ourselves. Character doesn’t simply show us who someone is, it controls people as well. We know from Joe Biden’s empathy that he will give it his all to help America fight the coronavirus. We know Donald Trump’s lack of empathy stopped him from caring about what the same virus did to his fellow Americans.
“Character and Success” is an essay written by Theodore Roosevelt in 1900. It opens with him recounting a conversation with a professor from Yale. The conversation drifted to football and the professor offered his opinion on a player for Yale. He didn’t think much of the young man because he was “slack in his studies.” If he was lax when it came to hitting the books, then it made sense he would also be lax on the field of play.
“Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character,” Roosevelt said, surmising the professor’s words. We are attracted to personality and talent, but the former President rightly deduces that what defines a person isn’t their smarts, or charm, or agility, but what virtues show through their actions. “In the long run,” he said, “ In the great battle of life, no brilliancy of intellect, no perfection of bodily development, will count when weighed in the balance against that assemblage of virtues, active and passive, of moral qualities, which we group together under the name of character; and if between any two contestants, even in college sport or in college work, the difference in character on the right side is as great as the difference of intellect or strength the other way, it is the character side that will win.”
Character matters. It’s matters in the classroom, on the playing field, in the workplace and in the Oval Office.