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Why Character Counts in a President

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"Reputation is the shadow," Abraham Lincoln said, "and character is the tree."

Lincoln, as he usually did, got 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, 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 2016.

Vulgarity and abusive blue language isn't everything, but it provides an insight into who a man or 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 language in describing his sexual speculations about women -- though it was more than a decade ago and he says that those boasts do not portray the man he is now -- give us more than a hint to his character. He had the misfortune of saying some of these things when someone was not actually looking but rather listening with a tape recorder.

We don't have Clinton on tape, but we do have credible witnesses, including several Secret Service agents who were assigned to what agents regard as "the worst duty assignment": 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 for anyone interested enough to take a close look at intimations of character there's more than that. Both Trump and Clinton have laid out important policies -- the things the voters could expect them to do if elected. These policies -- on taxes, defense and the waves of immigrants -- can be measured against Clinton's professed dream of higher taxes, expanded government spending and "open borders" to bring in 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. Clinton has gone largely unexamined by the so-called mainstream media.

The WikiLeaks disclosures, which the mainstream media resolutely refuse to cover in any telling detail, reveal the depth of Clinton'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 housing group in 2014. Only she knows when she's telling the truth and when she's not. There's a convenient truth and an inconvenient truth, and only Clinton 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 -- like 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 University 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."

James David Barber was a professor at Duke University when he wrote "The Presidential Character" in 1972. The book has been reprised every four years since. He argued that character -- not quite a synonym for personality -- is clearly the most important thing to know about a candidate. It is "the way the President orients himself toward life -- not for the moment, but enduringly."

Character, he wrote, "grows out of the child's experiments in relating to parents, brothers and sisters, and peers at play and in school, as well as to his own body and objects around it." The man-to-be -- or woman-to-be -- learns through early experiences and arrives at a profound conviction of his or her worth. The rest of us have to choose, wisely if we can, when we select the president on whom our hopes and fears, which through the years have been fraught with peril and possibility, ultimately depend.

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