The Politician, the Coach, and the Founding Father

Jeff Jacoby
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Posted: Jan 02, 2015 9:07 AM
The Politician, the Coach, and the Founding Father

In a Christmas Day update to his email list and Facebook followers, Governor-elect Charlie Baker touched all the right notes: gratitude to Massachusetts voters who elected him, admiration for "the ideas and the genuine commitment" he encounters in his travels across the commonwealth, sobriety regarding the gaping hole in the state budget ("the only outstanding question is how big it will be"), and optimism about the "smart, experienced, and unabashed" individuals who have agreed to join his new administration.

But the most valuable part of Baker's message was his celebration of Derek Herber, a track coach at North Attleborough High School, who led his team to a second consecutive Division II state championship last spring — only to realize after the trophy had been awarded that a scoring error had given North Attleborough too many points.­­

"Herber didn't hesitate," Baker wrote. "He called state officials and notified them that Central Catholic from Lawrence had actually won the meet, and his team had finished second. Then he faced his kids — to inform them about what he had done and what it would mean. And everybody got it."

Baker is by no means the first to extol Herber's sportsmanship. After relinquishing the trophy, the coach told the Boston Globe, he was interviewed 34 times — which was 33 more interviews than he gave after winning the state title in 2013. To be praised for his probity by the incoming governor, however, was especially significant.

Some months back I deplored Baker's choice of "loyalty" as the quality he most valued in others. Loyalty in the abstract is a fine trait, but loyalty-above-all is an invitation to corruption, particularly in politics. The favoritism and venality in the Probation Department scandal, I wrote at the time, were only the latest reminder of what can happen when loyalty trumps integrity. So it was heartening to see Baker make a point of singling out Coach Herber for putting integrity first and giving his young athletes a demonstration of honor far more valuable than any mere trophy.

When such exemplars of good character are "recognized for what they are and what they mean," Baker wrote, "we all benefit." That is absolutely right, and it can't be emphasized enough. Which is why I hope Baker will seek out more opportunities to celebrate standout models of admirable character, and to make clear that the inculcation of good character is as important a policy goal as economic development or reducing opiate addiction.

"The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society," affirms Richard V. Reeves in a recent essay in the journal National Affairs. To a generation raised to think that it is no business of the state to concern itself with shaping the civic virtue, prudence, and integrity of its citizens, it may seem radical or illiberal to claim otherwise. In reality, argues Reeves, a British historian and philosopher now based at the Brookings Institution, to focus on the importance of character is to "echo classical liberal ideas about what government is for" — ideas stretching from the ancient Greek and Roman republics to the thinkers who inspired America's founding fathers in the 18th century.

Good character reveals itself in the choices individuals make, above all when those choices pit integrity against expediency, self-discipline against temptation, or ethical standards against popularity or personal advancement.

"Every man has his price!" exclaims the ambitious Richard Rich in the opening scene of "A Man for All Seasons" Robert Bolt's classic play about Sir Thomas More. "In money.… Or pleasure. Titles, women, bricks-and-mortar, there's always something." The only defense against that cynical worldview is good character, and only where good character is cultivated can freedom and democracy thrive.

Over and over the founders underscored the indispensability of character to liberty. At his inauguration next week, Baker, like his predecessor, will take an oath to "bear true faith and allegiance and … support the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." The principal author of that constitution was John Adams, and his remarkable charter — the oldest still in effect anywhere in the world — directly links character and democratic statecraft.

"Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people," the constitution declares, are "necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." Accordingly, it is "the duty of legislators and magistrates … to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings … among the people."

When good character is scarce, social problems multiply, opportunity shrivels, and freedom recedes. Every society needs more Coach Herbers, and the integrity they exemplify. "Let's be great again, Massachusetts," exhorts the incoming governor. It will take a lot to make that happen, but character is where it starts.