There is no test of character quite like running for public office. For in any political race of consequence, there always comes that moment of truth when the candidate must decide just how far he will go to curry favor with the voters. How much principle, or just simple dignity, is he willing to sacrifice?
That's the moment aficionados of moral drama look for. It reveals so much. About character, about the awful wanting to win, about the person's moral priorities versus the candidate's sheer ambition.
In the quadrennial passion that is an American presidential election, there will always be those who conceive of their candidate as perfect in every way. Listen to the messianic nominating speeches at national conventions. Hear the roar of the adoring crowd. Remember the wave of Obamamania that swept the country earlier this year? People get swept away.
It's natural enough. There is something in the human condition that wants to worship something better than ourselves, that demands The Hero, and if there isn't one available, we'll invent one. We can see a Sir Galahad in a ward-heeler.
In our calmer moments, we know it is unrealistic to look for saints in politics, which is very much of this world. ("One always picks the easy fight/ One praises fools, one smothers light/ One shifts from left to right/ Politics, the art of the possible." -"Evita") Compromise is at the calculating heart of politics, and needs to be.
But it is also possible to compromise overmuch. The aspiring politician is always in danger of losing his way in that treacherous place where ambition and morality collide. At a certain moment, principle may be sacrificed, integrity lost. And such moments tend to recur in a pressure-filled presidential contest.
Barack Obama passed such a test earlier in this campaign. With style and grace. That's when some embarrassing videos of his long-time pastor and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced. They were full of racist nonsense: AIDS is a government plot to destroy the black race, God Damn America, and so tiringly on. It was a test: How was Barack Obama, the Reverend's loyal congregant of 20 years, going to react?
Sen. Obama rose to the occasion, or rather above it. He deplored what his preacher had said, but he would not turn his back on the man who had brought him into the church, officiated at his wedding, and baptized his children. He might hate the sin, but he would love the sinner. Good Christian doctrine all around. He would not disown his church or his pastor, any more than he would his family. As he put it in a speech that soon became known as The Speech: