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Character Matters

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jul 10, 2009

The recent sordid events involving Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC), Senator John Ensign (R-NV), and former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) should prove one thing: character matters.
And rightfully so. As Dartmouth College’s Linda Fowler suggests representative government poses two risks when we delegate our power to make decisions to others. First, officials may pursue their interest rather than their constituents or nation’s interest. Second, officials may make unacceptable tradeoffs requiring sacrifices (i.e., higher taxes, reduced or no benefits, criminal or civil liability, physical harm) from particular groups to achieve their policy objectives. This is why we say elected officials hold offices of “public trust.” We only want people worthy of our confidence making life altering and life and death decisions. 
Unsurprisingly, this concern with character is not new. In Federalists #51, James Madison recognized that humans are not angels and concluded that we need to divide power among branches of government to prevent abuse of power and to insure a “government of laws and not of men.” The Founders recognized that character or “the combined moral or ethical structure of a person,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is important because it influences who we are, our priorities, the performance of our duties, our relationships with other people, and how we view the world. And our character, once formed, tends to persist which means it will affect performance in office.
So contrary to explanations that it is only “sex” and that one’s private life does not affect one’s public performance, private indiscretions are usually manifestations of larger character flaws that can have public consequences.
To see this, let’s ignore the sexual infidelity for a moment. Do you trust someone who leaves the country to visit his mistress without letting anyone know his whereabouts potentially leaving the state leaderless if a crisis develops (Sanford)?
Would you trust someone who has an affair with a top aide’s wife, especially if that aide was his best friend, and then helps his friend land a high paying private sector job after the friend finds out (Ensign)?
Would you trust someone who convinces an aide to claim fatherhood of a child with a woman whom the candidate had an affair with, even while his wife battles cancer, and who then runs for office knowing a scandalous time bomb is ready to explode (Edwards)?
Or consider some other recent sex scandals. Would you trust someone like former Governor Elliot Spitzer (D-NY), a former attorney general, who regularly visited prostitutes in a state where prostitution is closely connected to organized crime making him susceptible to blackmail? Or would you trust someone, like Senator David Vitter (R-LA), who claims to support family values but regularly visited prostitutes?
Probably not. These decisions show irresponsibility, callousness toward friends and loved ones, a desire to deny mistakes and cover up problems, reckless judgment, and hypocrisy. Moreover, they show disrespect for their wife and children, women (viewing them as nothing but sex objects), and those less fortunate (no one grows up wanting to be a prostitute). None of these traits would ever make anyone’s list of desired qualities of public officials. Now, do you really want that same person to decide whether we go to war, who does and does not receive health care, which businesses are too big to fail, and what our spending priorities should be?
At their heart, these scandals have one thing in common: the individual puts himself before others – his family, staff, supporters, and the nation. And this arrogance and selfishness is more than a private character flaw when that person holds high office.   
                Yet, character should not be the sole criteria of an elected official. Persons of high moral character can be ineffective leaders (e.g., Jimmy Carter). An official’s vision, experience, political skill, temperament, intelligence, and other qualities are also important. However, character is a basic requirement.
                Therefore, persons of low moral character should not serve in government leadership positions. And when their lack of character is proven, they should show some character and resign.
 

A revised version of this blog appeared in the July 10, 2009 edition of the The Jackson Sun