Presidential Character in Election 2000

By Lopach, James J.; Luckowski, Jean A. | Social Education, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Presidential Character in Election 2000


Lopach, James J., Luckowski, Jean A., Social Education


ELECTION COMMENTATORS covering the presidential race have said repeatedly that this year character--not partisanship or domestic or international issues--will be at the core of voter concern. The Clinton scandal and impeachment alone make it inevitable that character will be a central theme in election 2000, just as it was when Jimmy Carter ceremoniously pledged to "never tell a lie" during the post-Watergate election of 1976.

The unfolding presidential election campaign has tended to corroborate this view. Early on, the insurgent candidacies of Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain were propelled by voters in primary states who warmed to their "authenticity" As the conventions approached, the prospective nominees--Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Albert Gore--made great efforts to "define" (or "reinvent") themselves in good-character terms, Gore as alternately a loyalist and penitent regarding the Clinton years, and Bush as a supporter of traditional values important "beyond the Beltway,".

What do we mean when we talk about "character" in politics? Media reporters and pundits have not been shy about applying epithets to this year's crop of presidential candidates. McCain was "candid" and "courageous," but also "uninformed," "reckless," and "vengeful" Bradley was "disciplined," "intelligent," and "innovative," but also "passive," "aloof," and "disdainful,' Gore is "experienced," "loyal," and "energetic," but also "mean," "truth-stretching," and "boring." Bush is "moral," "friendly," and "conciliatory," but also "dumb," "inexperienced," and "pampered,' Leaving aside whether or not these descriptions are apt, clearly they focus on different qualities of a candidate.

It may help to distinguish among three separate, but overlapping, attributes of an aspirant for the presidency (or any other public office): character, personality, and biography. The term "character" usually connotes personal qualities that are moral in nature. "Personality," on the other hand, more often implies traits that are psychologically based. Veracity and industry are elements of character, while intelligence and outgoingness are components of personality. "Biography" includes both when used to mean an individual's manifestations of character and personality over a lifetime.

A question increasingly posed about the character of our presidents is where to draw the line between public and private morality. Although the question is hardly new, it has come to bear more heavily on politics in an age of constant media exposure. The ordinary response is that private morality takes on public significance only when it affects a politician's public duties and the welfare of the nation. Others go further and believe that the presidency should represent the highest standard of personal morality.

Asking questions about the character of political leaders is as old as the study of politics. In The Republic, Plato theorized that leadership in a democracy would be weak because the leader would not be able to resist pandering to the changing whims of the public. Plato established the Academy to train political leaders to resist the temptation to "mix with the crowd and want to be popular with it."(1) For Plato, good government would stem from the schooled mind and steeled character of a philosopher-ruler.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were well-versed in classical political theory and shared Plato's fear of arbitrary and abusive power. James Madison placed much of his hope for good government in the structural design provided by the Constitution. Although despairing that there would be a steady supply of "enlightened statesmen," Madison considered that the Constitution's provision for a single executive would make it possible for politicians of good character to overcome the "mischiefs of factions."(2) Garry Wills, a noted scholar of the founding period, explains that Madison believed that "political virtue," in the form of impartiality and candor, could come to be the "distilled product" of American elections. …

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