“Reputation is the shadow,” Abraham Lincoln said, “and character is the tree.”
Lincoln, as he always did, got straight to the point with an earthy homily. He understood that character is more than reputation. Reputation is what we want others to see. If we’re lucky Lincoln’s tree is a hickory, hard and tough, unbending in the teeth of the gale, impossible to move, and difficult to break.
If we’re not so lucky, the tree will be a willow, graceful and lovely to look at, and always eager to bend to whatever wind that blows. Reputation can be faked, in politics by the arts of clever image-makers. Character can’t be faked because it’s who we are when no one is watching. Welcome to Campaign ‘16.
Vulgarity and abusive blue language isn’t everything, but it provides an insight into who a man or a woman actually is when no one is watching. Lies are even more revealing. Hillary Clinton has earned, if that is the word, a reputation for lying about just about everything. That’s the shadow across her character.
Donald Trump’s gross-out language in describing his sexual speculations about women, though it was more than a decade ago and he says those boasts no longer portray the man he is now, give us more than a hint to his character — who he is when no one is looking. He had the misfortune of saying some of these things when someone was not actually looking, but listening with a tape recorder.
We don’t have Hillary on tape, not yet, but we do have credible witnesses, including several of the Secret Service agents assigned to what agents regard as “the worst duty in the service,” guarding her life. They tell of vulgar language that might put the Donald to shame and mistreatment of servants, which a woman of character would regard as unforgivable.
Sex, lies and videotape have defined this presidential campaign, but there’s more than that for anyone interested enough to take a close look at intimations of character. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have laid out important policies, the things the voters could expect them to do if elected. These policies — taxes, defense, the waves of immigrants of largely unknown provenance who are swamping both the United States and Europe — can be measured against Hillary’s professed dream of higher taxes, expanded government spending and “open borders” to invite an unlimited number of refugees from the miserable places of the world. But the Donald’s vulgarity has put him beyond the pale for many voters, particularly women. Hillary has gone largely unexamined in the mainstream media, so called.
The WikiLeaks disclosures, which the mainstream media resolutely refuse to cover in any telling detail, reveal the depth of Hillary’s contempt for the public. She boasts that whatever she says is not necessarily true.
“You need both a public and a private position,” she told a family-housing group last year. Only she knows when she’s telling the truth and when she’s telling something that’s not the truth. There’s a convenient truth and an inconvenient truth, and only Hillary needs to know the difference. She has earned a reputation, even among many of her friends and supporters, for being untrustworthy. Some might say this reflects a fatal lack of character.
Character, in anybody’s definition, is determined by how we respond to events and circumstances, particularly when things go wrong — for something as trivial as a servant bringing in a wrong dish, or something far more important, such as playing loose with the nation’s security secrets, and then lying about it. “When push comes to shove,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton who has written extensively about presidential character, “a candidate’s character might be the most important factor guiding how he or she will make decisions and run the White House.”
The late James David Barber was a young professor at Duke when he wrote the book, “The Presidential Character,” in 1972. The book has been regarded as important ever since. He argued that character, not quite a synonym for personality, is clearly the most important thing to know about a candidate. Character is the way a president orients himself toward life, “not for the moment, but enduringly.”
Character, he wrote, “is forged in childhood, growing out of the child’s experiments in relating to parents, brothers and sisters and peers in play and in school, as well as to his own body and objects around it. Through these early experiences, the child and thus the man — or woman-to-be — arrives at a deep and private determination of what he or she is fundamentally worth.” The rest of us have to choose, wisely if we can, when we select the president on whom our hopes and fears, through the years fraught with peril and possibility, ultimately depend.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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